Walton Page

An Improved Means for Operating the Dampers of an Auto-harp

British patent Application date 12th November 1914 and accepted on 26th August, 1915
British Patent No 22417

Example image - aligned to the right

The formulation here is markedly different from all the  previous inventions. Perhaps due to the complexity of the keyboard and damping action, Page makes no attempt at an integrated interface. Instead the presentation is side by side; keyboard and strings facing the player, thus effectively doubling the size of the instrument. The complex damping mechanism, housed in the casing behind both the keyboard and harp adds a third bulk area, and overall, it certainly cannot be described as an easily portable instrument.

The introduction states that the intention of this is invention is to enable the autoharp “to be used as an orchestral instrument and to make the playing thereof easy.” I wonder what Page had in mind with this seemingly contradictory statement? Did he mean that the unique textures that the autoharp (particularly a reverse action autoharp which enables a level of chromaticism unmatched by any frame harp) would be made available to an orchestra through this invention? This is a possibility certainly, but the design of the mechanism seems to contradict this.

There are few clues from the patent document. Although Page is described as “of no occupation”; his address, described as “The Manor House, Yardley, Hastings”, perhaps suggests independent means. There is no clue as to his musical engagement or level of expertise.

However, personally I do not think that the phrase “orchestral instrument” is meant as described above; rather he intended a parlour instrument that retained the characteristics of ease of learning and play found in the autoharp, but which offered a serious progression route to musical engagement. The term orchestral is perhaps used to evoke the richness of the quality of music that the instrument can produce within this setting.

The Page formulation envisages single keys that allow chords to be played:

Example image - aligned to the right"The bottom row of keys releases the strings of the minor chords. Thus on depressing "A" all the A, C & E strings are liberated. The middle row release[s] the strings of the major chords."

Thus, in a manner similar to the autoharp the instrument allows chordal textures to be created from the outset of learning, through use of single keys. However:

Example image - aligned to the right“The top row of keys only operate all the dampers of the particular note depressed.
These notes can be played singly (to obtain unison passages) or in combination, by which means discords, or combinations not provided for in the chord-keys can be obtained. They are also used in combination with the chord-keys for the production of sevenths, etc.”

The design curiously echoes that of a group of modern, electronic instruments commonly referred to simply as “keyboards” in the UK. These are designed as starter instruments (primarily for children) with the thought that (depending on musical aptitude) there will be progression to instruments (or perhaps computer based interfaces) of increasing sophistication. They can play a variety of tones, with (at times) surprisingly good sampling technology. They incorporate an automated rhythm and bass section which allows the player to control the chord progression through use of single keys and two note combinations, thus the player (as with the Page formulation) is not required to fully understand harmony in order to produce surprisingly full sounding music (the equivalent of orchestral textures).

Page’s design conceived 15 keys per row, though he allows for variation. The damping system (shown below) is sophisticated, and one of the claims made by Page; “(3) Arranging the dampers so that each presses the string at a point about one seventh of its vibrating length” suggests that he was aware of, and had largely optimised harmonic damping on this instrument (Wigand, Back and Millington/Young do not display any direct evidence of this).

He does not make reference to any previous reverse action patent. The following reference within the patent:

Example image - aligned to the right“I am aware that auto-harps have been proposed in which major, minor and seventh chords could be produced in all keys by means of 3 rows of key buttons on a moveable frame & I make no claim to such an arrangement”

probably refers to the Eschemann patent of 1896 (from which commercial instruments were undoubtedly produced, and examples can still be turned up relatively easily). The Eschemann patent describes an innovation designed for a continuous chromatic strung autoharp where chord bars could be crooked a semitone up or down producing similar chords in different keys. This multi-function facet allowed for a greater number of chords to be produced from a smaller number of chord bars. Overall, Page appears to consider his invention an evolutionary step, which provides logical, but expanded interface for autoharp players. The remaining two claims for this instrument are relatively modest:

Example image - aligned to the right“(1) Operating the dampers of an auto-harp by means of a multiple keyboard arranged after the manner of a 3 manual organ keyboard.
(2) The method of connecting the keyboard with the dampers by means of adjustable pins and bars fitted with lifters”

Overall, I am confident that this instrument would function well. Page’s was one of the patents returned for rebuttal in the initial search phase of my patent application, but this formulation really has departed a long way from the original vision of a portable instrument to the point where I feel that this is really a different instrument from my own proposal and those of Wigand, Back and Young.