If you apply a simple but strict definition of a harmonica as a mouth-blown free-reed instrument, it was invented, technically speaking, by Christian Buschmann when he was 16 years old, back in the early 19th century. He called it an “aura” or a “mundaeoline”, registering and gaining the first European patent for a free reed mouth organ in 1821.
Musical invention seemed to run in the family. Buschmann’s father, Johann, an organ builder, developed a free-reeded keyboard he called a “terpodion” in 1816.
However, although credit goes to the younger Buschmann for his invention, it seems there were several other people working on similar ideas at around the same time, so who knows who was truly the creator of what we think of today as a harmonica?
For instance there were several people on Germany engaged in harmonica production in the 1920s, such as Christian Messner (in Trossingen), Johann Wilhelm Rudolf Glier (in Klingenthal) and Ignaz Hotz (in Knittlingen).
In 1824, Georg Anton Reinlein of Vienna was granted a patent for a bellows-driven instrument described as a harmonica. He is mentioned in an article published in 1828 as manufacturing “mundharmonikas”.
At the same time, in the 1820s, famous British scientist Charles Wheatstone was said to be experimenting in the use of free reeds. He was primarily interested in instruments with buttons for selecting notes and patented what he called a “symphonium” in 1829.
Also in the 1920s, American organ builder James Bazin started building free-reed instruments. An early issue of The Musical World and Times claimed Bazin was inspired by a German-made, free-reed pitch pipe that he took in for repairs in 1821. An example of Bazin’s harmonica, dating back to 1830, can be seen at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.
In New York, Lewes Zwahlen was also producing harmonica-like instruments resembling a “chord harmonica”.
The popularity of the mouth harp gave rise to a whole new industry in Germany. Christian Messner was among the first to open a factory in 1827. Another famous name, Seydel, started in 1847 and is now the oldest harmonica business still operating. Hohner began manufacturing in 1857, going on to become the most famous manufacturer to this day.
During their first year, Hohner produced more than 600 handmade harmonicas. But, eventually, increased demand couldn’t be satisfied by handmade production, and by 1880 Hohner’s mass production lines were making huge quantities, reaching an annual output of one million harmonicas by 1887. By 1920 the figure had soared to 20 million, accounting for about 40 per cent of Germany’s entire output of the instrument – most of which were headed for the export market.