Wednesday, 15 August 2018

The glass harmonica: a story of creativity and innovation (No.16)

To see the previous posts in this series click here.

People often react to new inventions in unexpected ways. These can sometimes have positive consequences, but they can also cause negative ones. 

The introduction of the glass harmonica caused two particularly noteworthy unexpected reactions.

Here is the first reaction:

The glass harmonica was used in strange and unexpected ways.

As Franklin states, he created the glass harmonica so that it could "admit a greater number of tunes". Not long after its invention, however, the instrument's otherworldly sound attracted the attentions of people who imagined other uses for it.

Dr Franz Mesmer was one such person. He developed an early form of medical therapy, which became popularly known as Mesmerism, that sought to use a force called "animal magnetism" or "lebensmagnetismus" to enhance people's health.

On hearing the glass harmonica, Dr Mesmer immediately perceived its sound as an auditory manifestation of this lebensmagnetismus and consequently sought to incorporate the instrument into his therapy regime.

As the centuries have progressed, Mesmerism has faded from medical practice. The unique look and sound of the glass harmonica, however, has continued to attract similarly unexpected attention. Most recently, the instrument has been incorporated into New Age and other assorted alternative medical therapies.

This unexpected use of the glass harmonica has positive outcomes. It could also have a negative outcome.

The positive outcomes are that the instrument continues to be played and that its profile is maintained within a significant segment of the population.

The negative outcome could be that its association with non-mainstream thinking and practices, many of which emphasise spiritual if not supernatural aspects, could give the glass harmonica an on the fringe "New Age" reputation as an instrument used to conjure and direct mystical forces rather than make music (the latter, after all, being the purpose for which it was intended).   

The lesson for any new invention clear: 

An invention's use for unexpected and surprising purposes could assure a significant level of popularity and success. Dependent on the reputation it subsequently gains, however, these could be achieved at the expense of the invention's success within the area for which it was intended. 

Monday, 13 August 2018

The glass harmonica: a story of creativity and innovation (No.15)

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Whilst inventing the glass harmonica, Benjamin Franklin used a variety of creative thinking and problem solving approaches. Four of these approaches stand out because of their simplicity.      

Here is the fourth approach:

Creating an explicit goal for innovative activities that is detailed enough to provide direction but simple enough to allow flexibility in the way it is achieved. 

"I wished only to see the glasses disposed in a more convenient form, and brought together in a narrower compass, so as to admit a greater number of tunes, and all within reach of a hand to a person sitting before the instrument..."
(From a letter written by Benjamin Franklin dated 13th July 1762)

The above is the goal Franklin kept to the forefront of his mind whilst he set about inventing the glass harmonica. 

It is detailed enough to provide clear direction about the things that need to be achieved and simple enough to allow flexibility about how those things are to be achieved.

This 'detailed enough' goal underpinned and strengthened Franklin's ability to maintain a balance between being patient with the process of innovation but demanding of the people with whom he worked.

It also allowed Franklin and his team of manufacturers and glassblowers enough freedom to try different techniques and approaches, gain insights and learn from experience. This emphasised and exploited the crucial connection between the development of an innovation and the development of the team developing that innovation.

To read the next post click here.

Friday, 10 August 2018

The glass harmonica: a story of creativity and innovation (No.14)

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Whilst inventing the glass harmonica, Benjamin Franklin used a variety of creative thinking and problem solving approaches. Four of these approaches stand out because of their simplicity.      

Here is the third approach:

Applying inside-out thinking to solving problems.

Franklin used inside-out thinking to invent the glass harmonica.

The glass harp, the predecessor to the glass harmonica, usually used glasses filled with water to produce music. Franklin's glass harmonica applied water to the outside of the glasses. 

This reversal, together with the changed angle from which Franklin approached his challenge, produced a musical instrument less difficult to transport and prepare for performance and more reliable and versatile than its predecessors.

To read the next post click here.

The glass harmonica: a story of creativity and innovation (No.13)

To see the previous posts in this series click here.

Whilst inventing the glass harmonica, Benjamin Franklin used a variety of creative thinking and problem solving approaches. Four of these approaches stand out because of their simplicity.      

Here is the second approach:

Changing the angle from which a problem is addressed.

The glass harp, the forerunner of the glass harmonica, used a set of upright glasses filled with water to produce its music. It was awkward to transport and difficult to tune and play. 

Unsurprisingly, it had a very limited repertoire.

As soon as Franklin imagined the glasses at a different angle, positioned on their sides at right angles from those used in a glass harp, he was well on the way to inventing a fundamentally different instrument: one that did not need to be tuned, was relatively easy to transport and easier to play than its predecessor.

Again unsurprisingly, It would eventually gain a large repertoire; many composers, among them Mozart and Beethoven, would write for it.

By (in this case literally) changing the angle from which he addressed the problem, Franklin invented an extremely reliable and popular musical instrument.


To read the next post click here.   

Tuesday, 7 August 2018

The glass harmonica: a story of creativity and innovation (No.12)

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Whilst inventing the glass harmonica, Benjamin Franklin used a variety of creative thinking and problem solving approaches. Four of these approaches stand out because of their simplicity.      

Here is the first approach:

Using action-oriented inventiveness that incorporates imaginative prototyping.

The act of making was essential to Franklin's creative process; inventing was about doing.

Having imagined a glass harmonica, Franklin immediately did something to make it a reality. 

He sought and engaged an expert glassblower to make the bowls that were central to the instrument's mechanism. Interestingly, the glassblower Franklin chose had a particularly imaginative mind and was keen to experiment.

Although he expressed irritation about some of his glassblower's flights of experimental fancy, Franklin did not immediately dismiss the craftsman or forbid all imaginative meanderings. 

Franklin's toleration most probably enhanced what was an early form of prototyping that, after hundreds of glassblowing sessions and repeated testing, provided the knowledge and insights required to produce perfect glass harmonica bowls.

Franklin's action-oriented inventiveness, which incorporated prototyping and tolerated imaginative experimentation, produced the desired results.

To read the next post click here

Monday, 6 August 2018

The glass harmonica: a story of creativity and innovation (No.11)

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The history of the glass harmonica provides important insights into the nature of the innovative process. Five aspects are particularly significant.

Here is the fifth aspect: 

If an idea or invention is attractive and inspiring enough to become fairly well-known, it can become subject to ever-widening and varied cycles of innovation and development: innovation and development independent from its original creator or creators and also, sometimes, its current mainstream popularity and success.

Once the glass harmonica had been given its world premiere in 1762, it began to develop independently of its inventor (Benjamin Franklin).

This independent development continued for centuries, long after the glass harmonica's demise as a popular and frequently played musical instrument. It was incrementally improved over the passing decades: the colour coding of the keys was simplified and quartz and scientific grade glass rather than lead glass was used to create the bowls at the heart of the instrument's mechanism. More recently, this development has become transformational: new things are being created that originate from the inspiring idea that gave birth to the glass harmonica.

Franklin's refusal to take out a patent on his invention was significant in enabling this independent development, encouraging others to use and improve the instrument. But there were also other reasons for this independence; the intrinsic attractiveness of the glass harmonica and, as mentioned above, the compelling idea it made manifest (namely, to create something beautiful and useful in an unexpected way from an everyday source) also played their parts.     

For example, Gerhard Finkenbeiner (an expert worker of glass) was inspired by the above intrinsic attractiveness and compelling idea to not only do much of the most recent development of the glass harmonica but also find new, attractive and useful ways to use glass. 

His endeavours enlighten us as to nature of the innovative process and how it evolves:  

When Finkenbeiner first saw a glass harmonica displayed in a museum in Paris, he was entranced by it: he was attracted to the stories surrounding it and inspired by its novel use of glass and the principles of its mechanism. This attraction and inspiration encouraged and strengthened a life-long interest in not only building and improving glass harmonicas (the sound of which served to entrance him further) but also developing other creative and innovative uses for glass. 

Finkenbeiner founded a company specialising in the design and manufacture of unique and complex glass scientific instruments. He built glass harmonicas and developed the idea of "musical glass" (widening its uses by creating glass alarm bells and carillons, etc.). Indeed, inspired by the novel use of glass that lends the glass harmonica its fascination, Finkenbeiner strove to use glass in many unexpected and innovative ways.       

Through Finkenbeiner, the glass harmonica has retained some of its past high profile; it is now well-known to a relatively small but global group of enthusiasts. 

In turn, these enthusiasts have enabled the glass harmonica to entrance and inspire a new set of people: people who may otherwise have remained ignorant of the instrument. Some of these people will probably find, or are finding, new ways to not only develop and use the glass harmonica but also exploit the uses of musical glass and the properties of high quality and carefully blown glass.

The above shows how a sufficiently attractive invention can, once relatively well-known and adequately shared, experience independent development. It also shows how this development is often focused on not only an invention itself but also the idea at the heart of an invention (and how this can lead to the creation of new things, some obviously related to the original invention and some less so).         

Very significantly, this independent development or transformation can happen despite an  invention or idea losing mainstream popularity; all that is needed is for a relatively small network of enthusiasts to commit to the cause.

To read the next post click here.

(Thanks go to Elijah Wald and his article Music of the Spheres: the Glass Harmonica.) 

Tuesday, 31 July 2018

The glass harmonica: a story of creativity and innovation (No.10)

To see the previous posts in this series click here.

The history of the glass harmonica provides important insights into the nature of the innovative process. Five aspects are particularly significant.

Here is the fourth aspect: 

The development of an innovation is closely connected with the development of the team developing that innovation.

The development of the glass harmonica was not easy; there were many mistakes and failures along the way, especially with regard to the glass bowls intrinsic to the instrument's design.

In his writings, Franklin describes how his glassblowers sometimes moved away from his instructions and experimented with the design of the glass bowls. Even though Franklin expresses significant frustration and genuine annoyance about this apparently ineffective use of time, he tolerated it.

This was because he realised too things:
  1. The innovative process always involves false starts, dead ends, failures and mistakes.
  2. For people to successfully innovate they must be given the opportunity to learn from the above and gain new knowledge and develop new skills that will eventually lead to success. 

Despite his frustrations, Franklin persevered with his team of glassblowers and kept them in his employ for almost the entirety of the glass harmonica's development. He managed to strike a balance between being patient with the process of innovation but demanding of the people with whom he worked.

This measure of team stability meant that each craftsman had the time and opportunity to practise (and experiment with) making the glass bowls and add gradually to his knowledge and skills. Eventually, these incremental insights and ongoing improvements in expertise  combined to create the perfect glass harmonica bowl. 

It is true that Franklin's ire led to the coming and going of one or two glassblowers, but each blower originated from the same co-located pool of craftsmen. This made it highly likely that each worker was aware of what his colleagues were doing to develop the glass harmonica's bowls (and also of the failures and mistakes made and what had been learnt from them).

Franklin understood that his glassblowers could not fail to learn from each other as they worked side-by-side for a significant period of time. More than this, he understood that the development of the glassblowing team's knowledge and skills went hand-in-hand with the development of the glass harmonica. He knew that admonishing or disciplining the team too harshly (or changing it too drastically) would hobble its progress and be counter-productive to his goals.

To read the next post click here.