EDMUND A. BOWLES
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.
IMPROVEMENTS IN MINING AND METALLURGY LEAD TO BETTER TRUMPETS
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.
MAKERS OF CLOCKS AND ASTRONOMICAL INSTRUMENTS DEVISE THE FIRST KEYBOARD INSTRUMENTS
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
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
A REVOLUTION IN MECHANICS AND MATERIALS...
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.
...APPLIED TO MUSICAL INSTRUMENTS
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.
GEARS, CRANKS, AND LEVERS COME TO THE AID OF THE TIMPANIST
In 1811, the Ecole
The most successful, and now ubiquitous,
device for drum tuning was the “
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.
FROM MINES TO MUSIC: THE VENERABLE VALVE
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
Figure 1. Patent drawing of the Pittrich drum-tuning mechanism, which could be attached to existing timpani.
A TECHNOLOGY LAG
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. 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
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
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
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.
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.