Innovations in unrelated fields have found applications in
everything from kettledrums and trumpets to pianos.

History is full of examples of how technology has been transferred between widely disparate branches of knowledge, instances of which have been called “transmission belts.” Sometimes such a transfer merely involves borrowing an existing technology or material and adapting it more or less intact for another purpose; for example, the substitution of plastic for paper cones in hi-fi loudspeakers. A far more creative and difficult transfer occurs when someone conceptualizes a way to apply a technology’s principles to another device in an entirely new way, such as adapting the digital process of computers to sound recording. Transfers like this usually result in a “quantum jump” (to misuse a term from physics) in the functional capacity of the recipient device.


The history of musical instrument-building, too, is filled with technological breakthroughs. The Gothic trumpet, for instance, was a crude instrument, the shape of which resembled a modern toilet plunger. Lacking a refined mouthpiece, its notes were limited in range and raucous in sound. During the late Middle Ages, copper smelting and more efficient production of calamine (a zinc sulfate used in making brass), combined with hydraulic hammers and various processing technologies, resulted in the manufacture of stronger and smoother sheet metal of consistent quality and thickness. Because of this, skilled instrument-makers were for the first time able to form thin tubes around wooden molds and thus fashion refined, folded trumpets, as well as organ pipes, slides for what later became sackbuts, or proto-trombones, and gradually flared bells at the end of the tube for better sound. The acoustical properties of the trumpet and other instruments were greatly improved, and musicians could produce far more “musical” notes. In addition, the creation of slides (tubes fitting into tubes) extended the number of different tones that could be blown, each “position” of the slide producing a different “scale,” or harmonic series, as the tube was lengthened.


Stringed instruments also made great leaps forward thanks to technological improvements. The clavichord and harpsichord, as well as their successor, the piano, all incorporate a rather elaborate and sophisticated key mechanism. How did it come about? Commencing in the late 14th century a number of keyboard instruments burst on the scene. They incorporated radically new actions embodied in an ingenious system employing pivoting keys that returned to their original positions after either striking (the clavichord) or plucking (the harpsichord) a string. The mechanical principles were derived in part from a treatise, Automatic Theater, by Heron of Alexandria (ca. 150 A.D.), with its descriptions of moving simulacra, such as replicas of singing birds. This technology, an aspect of Greco-Roman and Alexandrian science, was preserved by Byzantium and thus acquired and expanded by the Arabs, and then transmitted in the 13th century to European builders of automata.

A second major influence on keyboard mechanisms were the principles of the escapement (a device in a timepiece that provides energy impulses to a wheel or balance) and “jackwork” (roughly, linkages of rods which move things up and down or sideways) that is found in a series of Chinese texts on automata and astronomical clocks. Within the short space of a century, commencing around 1350, the flourishing craft guilds and court scientists in Europe produced a whole series of mechanical hardware, including extremely complex time-keeping devices. In a striking example of technological transfer, the same craftsmen and model-makers who created these devices for their discriminating patrons also invented prototypes of the clavichord and the harpsichord, with complex linkages between the keyboard and the strings. Henri Arnault of Zwolle, working at the Burgundian court, is perhaps the most noted of these craftsmen. The organ keyboard, with its socalled tracker-action linkages, connecting keys to sliding pipe stops, also benefited from this technology.


During the 19th century, mechanical technology improved greatly due to, among other influences, the spread of education, the growth and demands of industry, and the availability of strong, ferrous metals. By 1830, cast and wrought iron had become the primary material used by mechanics and engineers for a wide range of purposes. At the same time, the modern industrial machine-shop developed, along with the machine-tool industry, producing prototypes for most of the tools in use today. Cheap, high-tensile steel became available, thanks in large part to the metallurgical revolution generated in the 1850s by two inventors, Henry Bessemer (who discovered how to burn excessive carbon and other impurities out of molten iron by blowing air through it) and William Siemens (who contributed open-hearth steel making). Following these monumental achievements, metalworkers devoted much of their energy to the creation of practical devices for every purpose imaginable. The knowledge they gained in the process was widely disseminated in journals, newspapers, mechanics institutes, and schools.

As a consequence, the quality and variety of raw materials increased substantially, as did the reliability of mass production, especially following the advent of steam power. Among the many manufacturing improvements during the period were the direct alloying of copper and zinc (as opposed to cementation with copper and calamine), the production of tough, durable spring steel, the use of nickel for sliding components, electroplating, and the development of gas flame-controlled soldering techniques. Extensive use was made of cast iron for buildings, their façades, industrial ornaments, and railroad bridges.


The period from around 1810-1880 also was one of vitality, innovation, and change in the development and manufacture of musical instruments. With improvements in the art of molding and casting, cast iron was soon appropriated by the builders of pianos as they struggled to meet the increasing demand for instruments that could produce a greater volume of sound. Legend has it that the composer Ludwig van Beethoven was so unhappy with the meager sound of his older pianos that he pounded on them mercilessly in the vain hope of increasing it. Obviously, what was required was heavier stringing and far greater string-tension. Traditional wooden piano frames, even with reinforced metal braces, had proved inadequate to this challenge. By the 1840s, however, pianos were being produced with one-piece iron frames. Later refinements, in both the chemical composition of steel and its casting, led to more reliable frames and less cracking under pressure. Meanwhile, the high-tensile steel wire that had been developed for use in suspension bridges soon found its way into piano strings.

During the 19th century, radical alterations similarly occurred in both the use and construction of the timpani. Many composers, particularly those whose works contained many sectional key changes, were finding that to leave the drums tuned to the same pair of notes, as had generally been done before this time, was too restrictive and often dissonant. Thus, there was a growing orchestral repertory in which the drum part, or score, demanded rapid re-tunings during and between movements. The problem was that the kettledrums of the period were equipped with threaded tuning bolts around the rim of the counterhoop that fits over the skin head. The player either had to place a key over each of the six or eight square-headed bolts in succession— a time-consuming process involving much testing—or, if he was fortunate enough to have drums with “T” handles, manipulate two of the handles with both hands simultaneously. This rather slow and laborious process, which increased or decreased the tension on the skin, made very quick changes of pitch impossible.


In 1811, the Ecole Polytechnique in Paris published charts and plates of a wide variety of machine elements. As the Industrial Revolution flourished, inventor-craftsmen soon developed various devices that were attached to the timpani themselves for rapid re-tuning. Gerhard Cramer, the court timpanist in Munich, built the first lever- and gear-operated “machine” drum (a term still in use) in 1812. Cramer, working with the royal armorer and court locksmith, used cast iron and took his inspiration from automata, clocks, and stage machinery. Three years later, the Amsterdam musician-inventor, Johann Stumpff, brought out a device based upon the concept of the armature and central screw found in swivel desk-chairs. In 1836, Johann Einbigler of Frankfurt employed a threaded, vertical tuning crank pressing against a pivoted rocker-arm, which activated a spindle with vertical rods connected to the drum head. Whatever the solution, these machine drums, as they are known, quickly supplanted the older, hand-tuned models in most major European orchestras. Before long, composers were beginning to increase the number of quick note changes in their music.

The most successful, and now ubiquitous, device for drum tuning was the “Dresden” model invented by Carl Pittrich in 1881. It differed significantly from its predecessors by using steel and employing a foot-pedal with a ratchet for holding the tuning device in place (see Figure 1). There were also mechanical couplings that changed the entire mechanism into a device for converting the semicircular motion of the pedal (pushing it down raised the note and letting it up lowered it) to the vertical reciprocating motion of the tension hardware and counterhoop acting upon the skin head.

This approach represented a tremendous leap in tuning technology, as well as a bit of marketing genius, as Pittrich’s mechanism could be added as well to old timpani. Instead of having to replace what were still perfectly good drums, orchestras had but to purchase pedal mechanisms and have them attached. Now the timpanist not only could have his hands free to play while quickly re-tuning his drums, but a tuning gauge linked to the pedal precisely indicated the various notes. The concepts upon which this device was based were found in the connecting rods of steam engines, in the mechanical linkages of punch presses, and in the foot treadle of the common mangle used in commercial laundries. Composers were quick to seize upon this revolutionary new kind of machine drum; the orchestral music of Richard Strauss, for example, would be unplayable without them. An analogy of this type of technological adaptation is the turn-of-the-century Christie Front-Drive Motorized Tractor, which was sold to replace the three-horse team harnessed to the front of a steam fire-pumping engine.


Until around 1815, both trumpets and horns were limited in range to the natural harmonic series of notes governed by the length of their tubes. If the basic pitch of the instrument had to be altered to fit the key in which the composition was written, a crook with more or less tubing had to be substituted for the one in place. The solution, we now know, was to add valves. But where did the idea come from?

The most important industrial tool in the late 18th and early l9th centuries was the steam engine, which was used, among numerous other applications, for pumping water out of mines and, later, for the blowers in smelting ovens. This technology required a system of valves to control the passage of steam, water, or air. In 1816, C.J.B. Karsten brought out the first edition of his pioneering handbook on ironworks. Seeing such valves in operation, two Germans, working independently at first, and then jointly, reached much the same conclusion about their adaptability to musical instruments. Friedrich Blühmel, a miner and horn/trumpet player in a mining company band, had observed the use of valves to control the supply of air to blast furnaces and the venting of air in ironwork forges. This led him in 1816 to conceive of using a piston valve to divert the flow of air in the trumpet’s tube to a set of longer or shorter loops in order to shift the instrument’s natural harmonic series from its “basic” key to another, thereby producing an entire scale of whole- and half-notes. Two years later, Blühmel began his association with Heinrich Stölzel, a Berlin horn player and instrument maker-repairer, who, by 1815, had crafted a trumpet equipped with two valves for lowering its basic pitch by either a half- or whole-tone to facilitate a complete musical scale with even tone-color. Together, Blühmel and Stölzel applied for a patent on a spring-controlled slide-valve mechanism, adapting a rather simple device to the far more sophisticated requirements of providing a continuous musical scale for both trumpets and horns (see Figure 2). Another Blühmel invention was influenced by his observation of the spring-driven rotary valves used to channel air to the forges. Through experimentation, he was able to design and produce a cylindrical rotary valve, the operating principle of which is still in use today in the manufacture of brass instruments.

Figure 1. Patent drawing of the Pittrich drum-tuning mechanism

Figure 1. Patent drawing of the Pittrich drum-tuning mechanism, which could be attached to existing timpani.


It seems that a delay of some 15-20 years is usual for this kind of “transmission belt” between an “alien” material or technology and musical instruments to function. Two examples illustrate the point. Around 1825, a brand-new innovation in timpani sticks appeared: sponge-headed mallets. These mallets produced (especially for rolls) a softer, more blended sound than the conventional wooden-end or leather-covered ones, and soon came to be preferred by timpanists. The sponge that was used was not the light, porous kind known in today’s households, but a thinner, firmer variety. It was the “Elephant’s Ear” sponge, which was selected from among hundreds of commercial-grade sponges of varying forms, densities, and thicknesses.

Figure 2 

Figure 2. The Stölzel spring-controlled valve, depressed (left) and in normal position (right).

It is surely no coincidence that its first use as a covering for drumsticks occurred in France, whose 19th-century colonies, stretching from North Africa to the Red Sea, but particularly in the eastern Mediterranean, had developed sponge fishing into a vast commercial enterprise. It took approximately 20 years from the time Parisians began buying sponges in great quantities for the material to be appropriated by French kettledrummers as a covering for their mallets. Sponge-covered mallets probably were first used by the drummer of the Paris Opera. It was the composer Hector Berlioz who popularized them, calling for their use in his own compositions and citing their benefits in his treatise on instrumentation. He also introduced them to German orchestras during guest-conducting stints in 1842.

The second example of delayed technology transfer involving musical instruments was the appropriation of piano felt as a covering for drumsticks. This material, thicker and more refined than hat felt, had been applied first to the hammerheads of pianos by the Parisian instrument-maker Jean-Henri Pape. Patented in 1826, Pape’s innovation—along with heavier strings, a stronger and more efficient action, and an iron frame—helped make possible a greater volume of piano sound. It also softened the tone. Even so, it was not until around 1850 that piano felt was adapted as a covering for timpani sticks. As with its applications in pianos, sheet felt was sliced into pieces of different thicknesses, thereby enabling the player for the first time to have mallets of varying degrees of softness, according to the needs of the music being performed.

Arguably, such delays in putting new technology to work in musical instrument-building have a cultural or national basis. For example, old-fashioned wooden flutes were still favored by English orchestras long after metal flutes, with their Boehm system key linkages, were in common use. The same was true for the more efficient French bassoons and piston-valve horns. The English also clung to hand-tuned kettledrums, even though by 1890 most European orchestras possessed at least a pair of pedal timpani. The first such pair was not introduced into England until 1905, when Sir Henry Wood purchased a set for his Queen’s Hall Orchestra. The country had to wait another 25 years before a second major ensemble, the BBC Symphony, acquired a set. Indeed, as late as the 1940s, a famous English timpanist-author was extolling the old-fashioned and clumsy hand-tuned kettledrums. Similarly, the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra still employs drums tuned by means of a crank, sometimes requiring the player either to add an extra drum or two so that he can handle the additional notes, or to have a fellow percussionist turn the crank while he is playing.

Part of this innate conservatism towards new technology may be based upon the false premise that any necessary improvement should incorporate existing devices rather than result in something entirely “new,” something that requires a different mind-set or approach and entails a major adjustment in learning. Whatever the cause, conservative musicians and musical instrument manufacturers are hardly alone in their conservatism. During the 1920s, there was great resistance in some circles, both in the United States and England, to the introduction of electrical sound reproduction for recording by the Bell Telephone Laboratories. For example, the Victor Talking Machine Co. continued to experiment with variations on the size and shape of the acoustical recording horn long after the amplifying vacuum tube, a mainstay of the new telephone technology, had appeared. And, while the public was crazy for talking pictures from the very beginning, many studio heads, actors, and directors found the new technology vulgar and degrading. Against such resistance, however, technology usually prevails—witness the acoustics engineer who refused to go to “live” concerts because the sound was not “hi-fi”enough!

Recommended Readings:
Ahrens, C. “Technological Innovations in Nineteenth-Century Instrument Making and their Consequences.” The Musical Quarterly 82 (1996), 332-39.
Bowles, E.A. “On the Origin of the Keyboard Mechanism in the Late Middle Ages.” Technology and Culture 7 (1966), 152-62.
Bowles, E.A. “Nineteenth-Century Innovations in the Use and Construction of the Timpani.” Journal of the American Musical Instrument Society 6-7 (1980), 74-143.
Dahlquist, R. “Some Notes on the Early Valve.” Galpin Society Journal 33 (1980), 111-24.
Ericson, J.Q. “Heinrich Stölzel and Early Valved Horn Technique.” Historic Brass Society Journal 9 (1987), 63-82.
Good, E.M. Giraffes, Black Dragons, and Other Pianos: A Technological History from Cristofori to the Modern Concert Grand. Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 1982.
Needham, J., Ling W., and Price, D.J. Heavenly Clockwork. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1960.

photo of E.A. Bowles 

Edmund A. Bowles (CC ‘73) is a musicologist who has written extensively on late medieval musical instruments and performance practices, musical ensembles in European court festivals of state, the history of kettledrums, and the impact of technology.


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