The Cursed Glass Armonica of Benjamin Franklin

In the mid-1700s, in England and France, musicians performing on “singing glasses” provided a popular form of entertainment. Benjamin Franklin, the Founding Father of United States and inventor extraordinaire, abroad as a delegate for Colonial America, caught a performance in London. Intrigued, he put his mind to creating a musical instrument that worked on the same principles of fingers on glass. Franklin called his new musical instrument, which he completed in 1761, a “glass armonica” (or harmonica). The instrument made its debut in 1762, played by Marianne Davies, a flutist and harpist and relative of Franklin’s.

However, there was a rumored dark side to the glass armonica as well. Rumors began to spread that the surreal, haunting tones put forth from the instrument caused a variety of problems in some listeners after prolonged exposure, including dizziness, fainting, nausea, or in worse cases permanent nerve damage, and that the music could induce deep depression, melancholy, suicidal thoughts, psychosis, and even stark raving insanity. Numerous armonica players were also said to have been negatively impacted by the music, such as a Marianne Davies.

Perhaps it was the glass harmonica’s eerie sound that caused people to suspect the instrument was harmful, even dangerous. Some reported suffering tinnitus (or ringing in the ears) and disorientation when they heard the distinctive harmonica wail.

There has also been the theory that the glass used in the manufacture of the instruments contained lead, which could have led to lead poisoning in those who handled the glass armonica. Lead poisoning was sadly rather common in the 18th and 19th century, and it has a whole range of unpleasant symptoms, including headaches, irritability, memory problems, anemia, seizures, coma, or even death.

In 1999, on Thursday afternoon, Gerhard Finkenbeiner, renowned for resurrecting Benjamin Franklin's glass harmonica, walked out the door of his Waltham glass laboratory, telling employees he was running home for a spell. Unfortunately, it was the last time anyone has seen him. "This is a total mystery," said one of his employees. Almost two hours later, at about 2:45 p.m., the 69-year-old German native was seen at Norwood Memorial Airport, gearing up his two-engine Piper Cherokee and then flying into a cloudy sky. He never came back.


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