Benjamin Franklin and History's Most Dangerous Musical Instrument
In 1761, Benjamin Franklin attended a London concert and heard a musician play a set of water-tuned wine glasses. A mellow tone washed over the hall, leaving Franklin enchanted—and a little dismayed. The instrument sounded beautiful but looked unwieldy. One wrong move and all the glasses would topple. Inspired to improve the design, Franklin invented an alternative: a rod of rotating glass bowls called the "glass armonica." The instrument would sweep Europe by storm; Mozart even composed music for it.
Then it started killing people.
That's what doctors said, anyway. Decades earlier, anatomists had discovered how auditory nerves worked, and they began warning that too much music—like too much coffee or tea—could affect the nerves, causing headaches, fainting spells, and other medical problems.
These fears weren't totally new. Centuries earlier, Plato suggested banning certain musical modes, arguing that "novel fashions in music … [were] endangering the whole fabric of society." The Roman rhetorician Quintilian once argued that the timbre of some instruments could "emasculate the soul of all its vigor," driving men mad. By the arrival of the 19th century, wonky science helped this musical fear-mongering go mainstream—music was blamed for hysteria, premature menstruation, homosexuality, and even death. (In 1837, the controversial Penny Satirist magazine would report that a 28-year-old woman had died from listening to too much music.)
During this burgeoning period of anti-music mania, no instrument would be feared as much as Franklin's armonica. Critics said it overstimulated the brain; performers blamed it for dizziness, hallucinations, and palsy. In 1799, doctor Anthony Willich argued that the instrument deserved to be condemned, saying it caused "a great degree of nervous weakness." In 1808, people attributed the death of armonica virtuoso Marianne Kirchgessner to the instrument's eerie tones. Some psychiatrists went so far to say it drove listeners to suicide.
To say the least, the assault was a PR nightmare. Within decades, the feared instrument was relegated to the great big concert hall in the sky.