The genesis, rise, fall, and rise again of Benjamin Franklin’s mid-18th-century rub-the-glasses device, whose enormous popularity led to wild claims about both its salutary and detrimental effects on listeners.
Mead (English/Baruch Coll.; War Play: Video Games and the Future of Armed Conflict, 2013) returns with a highly readable and informative account of the research and tinkering by Franklin, whose refinements for the playing of musical glasses (a technique known long before) resulted in an instrument whose popularity soared in his day. Mead leads us through the history of music via glass-rubbing, the history of glass itself, and then, about a quarter of the way through his text, the story of Franklin, his fascination with the sound, and his determined efforts to create a more practical instrument, the armonica. He became fairly adept with the resulting device and with it, frequently entertained his guests. Mead introduces us to the early virtuosos on the device (principally women), and from the very beginning, it seemed to have what the author calls “magical effects.” Enter Franz Anton Mesmer—yes, the “mesmerism” guy—who employed it in his séances, propelling him to an enormous popularity of his own. Soon after, as Mead demonstrates, claims about a dark side of the sound overwhelmed Mesmer (as did Franklin’s research showing there is no magnetic fluid in us), and the instrument virtually disappeared. The author also shows us how and why it has returned—he owns one himself—tells us about the U.S. facility that produces them (they start at more than $7,000), and interviews today’s acknowledged master of the instrument, Dennis James. Despite a couple of odd errors in the text—we were not yet the “United States” in late 1762—the author is a genial historical guide.
Mead keeps the current swift, removing rough rocks that might disrupt our pleasant, engaging trip downstream with him.