Tuesday, 28 August 2018

A final thought about the glass harmonica: beware wineglass thinking

To see the previous posts in this series click here.

I have previously described how Benjamin Franklin used the following two creative problem solving techniques whilst inventing the glass harmonica. (Please click on the links to find out more about them and read descriptions of how Franklin used them):
  1. Changing the angle from which a problem is addressed.
  2. Applying inside out thinking to solving problems.
These techniques are very simple and, with hindsight, the solutions they enabled seem obvious. Obvious or not, however, it took a very long time for these solutions to be uncovered.

I have written about some of the reasons why this may be here, where I describe how timing and conditions need to be conducive to new and innovative ideas emerging.

In addition to these contextual reasons, there is a one other reason: one that originates from our tendency to become stuck within the ruts of habitual thinking when seeking to problem solve. In the case of the development of the glass harmonica and its predecessors, it was people's habitual perception of the ubiquitous wine glass that limited and in some cases reversed progress. 

Most of us, when we think of a wine glass, will imagine something like this:
                                                
 If we are shown something like this, we may feel very slightly uneasy:
 And if we see this, most of us will immediately think "what a waste":  
     
This type of thinking is habitual; we automatically think of a wine glass that is stable and upright so that it can be safely filled with our favourite drink. 

This image of an upright "effective" wine glass is etched into our day-to-day thinking and, like any habitual thinking, it has (given the right opportunity) the potential to influence how we seek to solve problems. This potential was realised during the development of the glass harmonica and its predecessors.

From the Renaissance up to and including the appearance of the glass harp during the Age of Enlightenment (a period of just under 400 years) the above mental model of a wine glass dominated thinking about making music with glass: an effective glass (whether it was used for drinking or playing) was always a stable upright glass into which liquid could be poured unspilt. Sets of upright wine glasses were, as far as is known, always used to make music and each glass was tuned to the required pitch by filling it with a specific amount of water.

Even when a Fellow of the Royal Society (Edward Delaval) became interested in the musical properties of glass, this mental model was never challenged. Delaval focused upon finding ways to improve the tuning and sound of the upright water-filled glasses of the glass harp (the glass harmonica's predecessor) rather than seeking radically different approaches.

For centuries, the development of glass musical instruments remained fixated upon upright wineglasses filled with water. This limited their viability and effectiveness, the former because of the glasses' fragility and difficulty to transport and the latter because of upright wine glasses' inability to enable rich and florid playing of a wide variety of music.     

Even when the glass harmonica was revealed to people (and with it a new way of perceiving glasses and making music with them) the habitual mental model of an upright filled wineglass was obstinately persistent in finding ways to interfere with people's thoughts.

Some observers of the instrument, not understanding its underpinning principles, sought to improve it by applying broken bits of their habitual mental model of a wineglass rather than sweeping them to one side and thinking afresh.

This caused faulty thinking that led to dubious suggestions for improvement. Specifically, some people instinctively clung to the notion that glasses were always there to be filled (even when they were there to be played). This led to a suggestion that the mechanism and sound of the glass harmonica could be improved if its sideways-on glass bowls were partially submerged in a trough of water. Suffice to say (and as the previous link explains) this dubious "improvement" proved disastrously cacophonous.

It is often our stuck and habitual thinking, our personal versions of the above "Wine Glass Thinking", that can hinder our ability to identify and develop innovative ideas.

Tuesday, 21 August 2018

The glass harmonica: a story of creativity and innovation (No.18)

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 three particularly noteworthy unexpected reactions.

Here is the third reaction:

People suggested and made dubious improvements to the glass harmonica due to ignorance or misunderstanding of its underlying principles.

Some people, having seen one or two old and un-played glass harmonica's, suggested that the instrument could be improved by immersing its glass bowls in a trough of water.

This modification was expected to achieve two things:
  1. Players would not need to wet their fingers at regular intervals.
  2. The glass harmonica would adopt and adapt the tried and tested approach of its predecessor, the glass harp (which used a number of glasses, each glass filled with water that tuned it to a precise tone).
The above modification was eventually tested by a glass harmonica player, William Zeitler, and the results were far from ideal; they were, in fact, cacophonous.    
         
This was because the idea of improving the performance of the glass harmonica by immersing its bowls in water was based upon a lack of understanding about how the instrument worked.

Each of the glass harmonica's bowls is pre-tuned (blown and ground to the correct size and depth to produce the required tone) and water is used only to moisten the fingers sufficiently to produce a smooth and singing sound.

Once these bowls were immersed in water, haphazardly altering the space for resonance within each bowl, the pre-tuning of each bowl was lost. This splintered the glass harmonica's carefully graduated scale of tones into ear piercing shards of sound.

The lesson for any new invention is clear:

Lacking an understanding of its underlying principles, people may suggest dubious modifications to a new invention that could limit its effectiveness or make it ineffective.


To read the last post click here.

Monday, 20 August 2018

The glass harmonica: a story of creativity and innovation (No.17)

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 three particularly noteworthy unexpected reactions.

Here is the second reaction:

Rumours about the glass harmonica emerged and spread that affected the instrument's popularity and development.

Rumours began to emerge and spread about the glass harmonica soon after its premier.

There were two main types of rumour: superstitious rumours and seemingly rational rumours.

The superstitious rumours credited the sound of the glass harmonica with supernatural powers that were mostly perceived as malign, causing people to become depressed or go mad (or fall ill or die).

The seemingly rational rumours focused on the manufacture of the instrument: specifically, its glass bowls. A rumour emerged that the lead used to make these bowls was poisoning glass harmonica players through contact with their fingers. There is no evidence that such poisoning is possible.

Both types of rumours were based upon similar instances of ill health (mental and physical) and unexpected death. The seemingly rational rumours were based upon the ill health and deaths of some of the glass harmonica's players and ignored the fact that most well-known players, including Benjamin Franklin, led long and healthy lives. The superstitious rumours were also fuelled by this evidence, plus the unfortunate deaths of one or two audience members (who had promptly expired, seemingly upon exposure to the glass harmonica's malignant tones). 

The superstitious rumours primarily affected the popularity of the glass harmonica, contributing to its eventual disappearance from the mainstream musical repertoire.

The seemingly rational rumours not only contributed in a similar way to the demise of the instrument but also hobbled its development and lessened its effectiveness. For example, to avoid supposed lead poisoning through hand contact with the lead glass bowls, a keyboard mechanism was placed between the player's hands and the glass. Given the nature of the instrument and the sensitive and subtle contact needed with the glass to produce the music, this modification proved less than effective.

Lastly, the above rumours grew within and emerged from pockets. These pockets were geographic and demographic, and they were closely associate with each other. The geographic pocket was centred upon the city of Vienna, and the demographic pocket was situated within this city's affluent upper classes.

18th century Vienna's closely networked and influential upper class, together with the city's reputation as a cultural and social trend setter, ensured that rumours about the glass harmonica were not only spread rapidly within Vienna but also (once they emerged from the confines of the city) taken seriously by others in Europe and around the world.

The lessons for any new invention are clear:

Rumours about a new invention will inevitably emerge and spread. Some of these may be based upon old or even superstitious thinking and some may be seemingly rational. The former rumours could adversely affect the popularity of an invention. The latter rumours could not only adversely affect the popularity of an invention but also significantly hinder its development and effectiveness. 

At first, the rumours will be generated within identifiable geographic and demographic pockets. If these pockets are perceived as influential, the rumours will quickly spread to other areas and be taken seriously by many people.

To read the next post click here.

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 three 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.

To read the next post click here.   

Monday, 13 August 2018

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

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 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)

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 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.