Monday, 6 August 2018

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

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 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.) 

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