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.

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