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.

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