Exploring the Roots of Harmonica Invention

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origin of harmonica

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.


Comments (10)

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    Valentino G. Saunders

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    The origin of the harmonica is generally accepted by musicologists to come from a Chinese wind instrument called a “sheng” (or “cheng”) circa 3000 B.C. Despite the fact that these two instruments’ shapes differ greatly, both use a free-reed mechanism in a very similar manner. In 1636, Marin Mersànne introduced Europe to the sheng through his letters describing it as “an Asian free-reed wind instrument.” In 1776, French Jesuit missionary Pare Amiot shipped several shengs from China to Paris, France. By the 1780s, European instrument makers were experimenting with free-reeds.

    In 1816, a free-reeded keyboard instrument called a “terpodion” was introduced by Johann Buschmannn, a German organ builder. This instrument would later become the predecessor to both the harmonica and the harmonium. His sixteen-year-old son, Christian Friedrich Buschmann, would invent and register in 1821 for the first European patent of a free-reeded mouth organ, which he called the “aura,” or “mundaeoline.” That leaves clearly, that Christian Buschmann
    did not invent the Harmonica.

    Working to search the truth, brings justice, union and peace.

    Valentino G. Saunders

    Reply

    • Avatar

      tangie

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      great insight! 🙂

      Reply

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    A.J.

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    Very informative and has helped me tremendously with some research I was doing on this instrument.

    Reply

    • Avatar

      JP Allen

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      I’m glad it was helpful to you A.J. jp

      Reply

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    Victor Terrible II

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    Why do we care who made it first? I know I don’t! It seems like a big waste of time. People will always find ways to make it seem like the person or company that they like was the inventor. All that really layers is that the harmonica was invented and we love it! Think more about the people now who are improving on it, making it better! Think on how can I play it better, and help others play better too! Think on how can we get this instrument more accepted with more and more university music schools offering degrees in harmonica like they do other instruments! Sorry for rambling on…I have no more to say…Vic

    Reply

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      JP Allen

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      On with the harmonica revolution! jp

      Reply

  • Avatar

    Victor Terrible II

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    Sorry, the word ‘layers’ was supposed to be ‘matters’…Vic

    Reply

    • Avatar

      JP Allen

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      Got it. jp

      Reply

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    Thomas Harrington

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    Learning the harmonica/mouth organ takes time to perfect. I started when I was about seven years old and have been playing ever since. Basically, I play for my own entertainment which is quite satisfying. Learning how to play the blues would be another great achievement.I feel i will never come anywhere close to the great players. Still, I am contented with my performance on the mund harmonica and will continue as long as I can. Friends, please keep playing and learning. Cheers.

    Reply

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      JP Allen

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      Right on Thomas. Thanks for your insight. jp

      Reply

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