Wheatstone’s wonder


Where are they now ? . . the symphonium, the seraphine, the tonimeter, the ‘Royal Albert’ transposing pianoforte, the guitarra harpa, the lyre-shaped cottage pianoforte, the panorgue, the autophone, the sommerphone, the piano violin . . [Peter & Ann MacTaggart (1986) Musical Instruments of the 1851 Exhibition]

The scientist Professor Charles Wheatstone – celebrated for his contributions to electrical engineering, optics, acoustics, telegraphy and cryptography –  invented the concertina in London around 1830 and marketed the instrument through the family music business from 1836. His sound source was vibrating metal tongues or ‘free reeds’,  as in the Chinese sheng, introduced to Europe some sixty years by the French Jesuit Jean-Joseph-Marie Amiot. Most ingenious contraptions of the early Victorian era have disappeared without trace but the concertina  played around the world today retains all the essential features of Wheatstone’s original design:  hexagonal bellows with musical end-plates close-packed with tuned metal reeds, set in resonating chambers, activated by finger-buttons. A compact and complete design.

The Illustrated London News supplement on musical exhibits at the Great Exhibition of 1851 had this to say:

‘The concertina, the most elegant and perfect instrument of its kind, was patented about twenty years ago by Messrs Wheatstone. The invention is due to Professor Wheatstone, by whose scientific labours many valuable and important improvements in the construction of instruments with vibrating plates have been effected. Since its first introduction the concertina has steadily progressed in public favour . . . [forming] a valuable addition to those musical instruments that are more especially adapted for the drawing room’. (August 1851, Vol XIX, No 512, p242)

Wheatstone’s patent covered both the physical design of the instrument, its hardware, and what we could call its software, the arrangement of notes. His original fingering system was ingenious but bizarre:  buttons on the right side played the notes that appear on stave-lines (treble E, G, B etc), buttons on the left played  the gaps  (D,F,A, etc). A# and Bb had separate buttons and distinct tuning. As an acoustical scientist Wheatstone rejected the concept of equal temperament. The composer  Hector Berlioz was on the prize jury for musical instruments displayed in the Crystal Palace for the Great Exhibition of 1851. He admired the sweet tone of the concertina but found Wheatstone’s tuning system doctrinaire and unmusical.

jeffries-on-red-lino.jpgWheatstone did eventually switch to equal temperament tuning. He also patented in 1844 a second type of instrument that was mechanically identical but radically different in its fingering system. The ‘duet’ or ‘double’ model resembled a piano keyboard in placing low notes under the fingers of the left hand, and high on the right. But that let the cat out of the bag. Other makers had their own ideas about improving the note arrangement of a concertina, and as Wheatstone’s patents expired they brought new systems onto the market. Most popular were the Anglo-German or ‘Anglo’ type where buttons sounded different tones on the push and the pull, giving a rhythmic lift to dance music. The design of the duet concertina was tweaked this way and that to enhance its chromatic  range and ability to tackle music with a richer harmonic texture. And Wheatstone’s original patented scheme, the ‘English’ system, continued in production and still retains a loyal following.

The upshot is that similar-looking concertinas may belong to any of eight rival and incompatible systems: English, Anglo, Wheatstone double, Maccann duet, Crane or Triumph system, Jeffries duet, Wheatstone-Chidley, Hayden duet.   The differences are spelt out by Allan Atlas in his ‘concertina’ entry for Stanley Sadie’s New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, and they’re superbly well documented in the on-line resource www.concertina.com.This virtual archive of material on rival squeezebox systems – a history of fission and division – was created by Robert Gaskins, the Silicon Valley genius who invented Powerpoint and took it from independent start-up to indispensable global-standard software within Microsoft.

There’s wonderful serendipity here.