Whenever I’ve played the game of trying to pick the ten people living or dead you’d like to have over for dinner (if our dining room held that many people), Ben Franklin has been pretty much near the top of that list. The range and depth of his activities is continually surpising and amazing to me, and combined with a rakish but fundamentally good-natured character (or at least so it seems to me), he’s pretty much one of my favorite figures out of history. I was even delighted when we recently moved to a house on Franklin Street.
And… today is the 300th anniversary of his birth here in Boston. Everybody knows his more important accomplishments, but I’ve always been intrigued by a less familiar invention of his; a musical instrument called the glass harmonica (or armonica, depending). It exploits the well-known effect of running one’s finger around the rim of a wine glass and producing a tone. Except he reconfigured it so that the glasses became bowls, and they were all supported by a rod that ran straight through their bases, effectively nesting them together like a open-ended russian easter eggs. When the crank at the end of the rod was turned, all the bowls were set in motion, and one simply had to touch the spinning edge to get the sound.
It was a typical Franklin stroke of genius; taking a simple curiosity and turning it into a usable musical instrument. The effect was ethereal and other-worldly. For a little while, it captured the imagination of musicians world-wide; Mozart and Beethoven composed short pieces for it. So… happy birthday Ben, dinner’s in the oven.