Benjamin Franklin's original Glass Armonica
Franklin was inspired for his 1761 invention of the Armonica when he heard music being played by an eccentric Irishman Richard Puckeridge on a set of upright goblets filled with varying amounts of water. Franklin thought he could eliminate the difficult problems of the water-tuning by giving the bowls themselves a fixed tonality based on the size of the bowls and the thickness of the glass.
Franklin's Armonica was very popular in his day
The instrument went into production very quickly and the papers of Franklin contain references to correspondents in such places as Paris, Prague, Turin, Versailles who were having instruments made. It became quite a fashionable topic of conversation amongst the well-to-do. Marie Antoinette was among those who studied to learn how to play the Armonica. Perhaps it was the famed hypnotist Mesmer who helped to make it so talked of.
Few Franklin instruments survived
The mortality rate for the fragile Franklin Armonicas was high. There are many sad stories: a precious Armonica being dropped following a successful concert; one just completed being shattered by a falling painting; and even of one being knocked over by an unhappy sow who got loose near a concert hall. The few surviving instruments from that period are in private collections or museums. Original Franklin Armonicas can be found in The Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, The Victoria and Albert Museum in London, The Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh, and The Corning Museum of Glass in Corning, New York.
Health concerns fanned by the press
Touring glass armonica performer Marianne Davies, who brought the Franklin Armonica to the concert public's attention in the years following its invention, and who also taught such luminaries as Marie Antoinette and Mesmer to play it, eventually became quite ill. Her health and nerves were "said to have been ruined by her armonica playing." The blind Armonica concert artist, Marianne Kirchgessner, who inspired Mozart to write for the instrument, died in 1808 at age 39. Her death was attributed to "deterioration of her nerves caused by the vibrations of the instrument." In 1798 Friedrich Rochlitz wrote in the Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung, "There may be various reasons for the scarcity of armonica players, principally the almost universally shared opinion that playing it is damaging to the health, that it excessively stimulates the nerves, plunges the player into a nagging depression and hence into a dark and melancholy mood, that it is an apt method for slow self-annihilation.... Many (physicians with whom I have discussed this matter) say the sharp penetrating tone runs like a spark through the entire nervous system, forcibly shaking it up and causing nervous disorders" He went on to give some warnings:
If you are suffering from any nervous disorder you should not play it,
If you are not yet ill you should not play it excessively,
If you are feeling melancholy you should not play it or else play uplifting pieces,
If tired, avoid playing it late at night.
J.C. Muller warned in his instructional manual of 1788: "If you have been upset by harmful novels, false friends, or perhaps a deceiving girl, then abstain from playing the armonica--it will only upset you even more. There are people of this kind--of both sexes--who must be advised not to study the instrument, in order that their state of mind should not be aggravated."
Historical hysterical events
When word began to circulate that there was illness attributed to the instrument, people began to panic, blaming the instrument for everything from domestic disputes, premature births, and mortal afflictions, to convulsions in cats and dogs. In certain German States it was banned by police decree "on account of injury to one's health and for the sake of public order."
As J.C. Muller wrote in 1788, "It is true that the armonica has extraordinary effects on people, different ones on each person according to his temperament. But that these are detrimental to the health has never been proven. If playing the armonica were to bring the performer gradually closer to death, or at least cause certain illnesses, that would be truly terrible. But where is the evidence?"
Early players' symptoms perhaps caused by lead poisoning
Modern theorists feel that any medical symptoms occurring in the 18th century players would likely have been caused by the lead in the paint which the Glass Armonica manufacturers used in Franklin's day to indicate the pitches. Another possible explanation is indicated by a remark in Muller's instruction book, "treated water from the apothecary over a period of time may be detrimental to my nerves." He also mentions that "I had to give up playing the armonica because it seemed to be damaging to my health" was an excuse people often gave for their own ineptitude and impatience at learning to play! Thus rumors spread.
Muller listed many players of his acquaintance who remained in good health. Luckily Benjamin Franklin, who himself was an avid performer on the instrument, suffered no such problems