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.   

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