Benjamin Franklin and the Glass Armonica

Everyone knows the eerie, tinkling notes of the ‘Aquarium’ movement in Camille Saint-Saëns’ symphony for children, The Carnival of the Animals, even if we can’t name the music. But few people realise that the instrument which creates that other-worldly sound – also used in some renditions of the Harry Potter film music – was invented by Benjamin Franklin while living in London in 1761. And fewer still are aware of the role that Franklin’s instrument played in the strange story of hypnotism.

Franklin was inspired to create his glass armonica after hearing an English friend, Edward Delaval, playing a tune on wine glasses filled with water. Delaval was using the tried and tested technique, familiar to anyone who’s run out of things to say in the pub, of running a wet finger around the rim of a wine or beer glass to produce high-pitched ‘singing’. Franklin was convinced he could do better. With his typical ingenuity and attention to detail, he drew up an elaborate design and commissioned a London glassblower, Charles James, to create the first glass armonica.

Franklin’s armonica, also known as a glass harmonica, was made from 37 glass bowls of varying thicknesses and sizes threaded horizontally on an iron spindle which could be turned by a foot pedal. By moistening their fingers with water, a player could produce up to ten notes or chords at a time. The bowls were colour-coded for different notes. Franklin was delighted with the results. ‘Of all my inventions,’ he later said, ‘the glass armonica has given me the greatest personal satisfaction.’ Franklin’s instrument enjoyed its world premiere in 1762 and became hugely popular throughout Europe, inspiring compositions by celebrated musicians including Mozart.

Mozart first encountered the glass armonica in 1773 on a visit with his father to the house of a family friend, the physician Franz Anton Mesmer, in Vienna. After hearing the doctor play the instrument ‘unusually well’, the 16-year-old took a turn at tinkling the glasses himself. Mozart later wrote compositions, including his mournful Adagio for Glass Harmonica, for the instrument.

But it was Mozart’s host, Mesmer, who made the fullest use of the armonica’s ethereal qualities. Mesmer had studied medicine at the University of Vienna before settling in the city as a physician. Becoming disillusioned with orthodox medical therapies, such as bloodletting and blistering, Mesmer was eager to find alternatives. So when a fellow academic, the fabulously named Father Maximilian Hell, said he had cured his heartburn by applying magnets to his body, Mesmer was intrigued. He tried the method on his patients and was convinced he had discovered an invisible force which could be manipulated by magnets. He named this force ‘animal magnetism’. Abandoning magnets, Mesmer found that by using repetitive hand motions and strong vocal suggestions he could induce a kind of sleep in his patients. In this state, patients would slavishly follow his commands, lose their inhibitions and become insensitive to pain.

What Mesmer had stumbled upon, of course, was hypnotism. Although similar techniques had been used since ancient times to induce sleep-like states, Mesmer was the first to harness such methods systematically for medical purposes. Mesmer elevated his technique, which became known as ‘mesmerism, into an art form.

Settling in Paris in 1778, Mesmer became an overnight phenomenon. People flocked to his mesmerism salons where they would sit in a darkened room walled with mirrors as Mesmer, dressed in a flowing lilac robe, waved his hands to the accompaniment of the unearthly strains of his armonica. To treat more people at once, he had a tub or ‘baquet’ filled with water and iron filings. His patients, many of them wealthy ladies of leisure, sat around the tub and grasped one of the protruding iron rods. Handsome male assistants sat behind the patients and clasped them between their knees while applying ‘gentle pressure upon the breasts of the ladies’. According to one observer, ‘the cheeks of the ladies began to glow, their imaginations to become inflamed; and off they went, one after the other, in convulsive fits’.

Feted by Parisian society, including Marie Antoinette – herself a proficient armonica player – Mesmer amassed a fortune which was further increased as he sold his secret to eager disciples. But it was not long before his erotic exhibitions attracted the scorn of the French medical establishment who persuaded Louis XVI in 1784 to set up a royal commission to investigate mesmerism. The inquiry team comprised some of the most eminent scientific thinkers of the era, including Franklin, now aged 78, who was living in exile in France.

Meeting at Franklin’s house, the commission concluded that Mesmer’s invisible force did not exist and any benefit from his methods was due to ‘imagination’. Franklin’s musical invention had helped Mesmer create the highly-charged atmosphere at his mesmerism salons but Franklin’s intervention now helped to end Mesmer’s career. With his methods discredited, Mesmer left town, taking his armonica with him, and spent the rest of his life wandering Europe until he died in obscurity in 1815.

Mesmerism, however, flourished. It was introduced to Britain, by a second-generation disciple of Mesmer, in 1837 and was renamed hypnotism, by the Scottish physician James Braid, in 1841. After various resurgences, hypnotism remains popular today. Franklin’s armonica went on to inspire musical works by Beethoven, Donizetti and Richard Strauss as well as Saint-Saëns. In the early 19th century, however, the armonica fell from favour, partly fuelled by fears that its ghostly music could cause hallucinations and even madness.

Today a rare original armonica survives in the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia and a modern replica can be seen – and heard – at Benjamin Franklin House during Architectural Tours and group visits. And the mystical strains of the armonica are still occasionally produced in music by Bjork, David Gilmore and others.

This article is contributed by Wendy Moore – author, journalist, and one of our distinguished Literary Prize judges. Her most recent book Endell Street (UK)/No Man’s Land (US) is available to purchase online. 

Temporary Closure of Benjamin Franklin House

Our priority is protecting our visitors, staff, volunteers – and of course our precious, historic building.  To do our part to discourage the spread of the COVID-19 virus, we will be closing Benjamin Franklin House for all offerings effective Tuesday, 17 March 2020.

If you have tickets between now and 15 June, you can re-book here, or if you prefer, we will refund the cost of your ticket(s). However, we would be grateful if you would consider donating the cost of your ticket(s) to help Benjamin Franklin House weather this difficult time. We are continuing to pay our staff and key suppliers to ensure their well-being.

We do not take this decision lightly as our mission is to bring history and innovation to life for a global public through the world’s only surviving home of Benjamin Franklin.

While we are closed, we will take time to progress a number of core and new projects and explore opportunities for more distance programming.

Please do not hesitate to contact us at if you have any questions or concerns.

We will remember Benjamin Franklin’s advice: “it is in the first Place necessary to be careful in preserving Health (1786).”

Kind regards,

The Benjamin Franklin House Team

Congratulations to our 2018 Literary Prize Winners

The quote for the 2018 Literary Prize was as follows ‘Let all man know thee, but no man know thee thoroughly’ Poor Richard, 1743. We accepted both fiction and non-fiction entries from aspiring writers aged 18 to 25.

Our first place winner for 2018 was James Waddell, who is currently studying at the University of Law, Moorgate. Read James’ entry here.

Rachel Thomson was our second place winner, she is currently working in retail and spends her free time writing, painting and reading. Read Rachel’s entry here.

Thank you to all who participated, the submissions for this year were fantastic! We will be announcing the quote for our 2019 competition very soon, please watch this space for further information.


Frankly Speaking!

A Benjamin Franklin House Debate Competition in collaboration with the US Embassy in London, Bloomberg and The Daughters of the American Revolution (Walter Hines Page Chapter).

On Friday 16 March 2018, 40 students from eight schools across the country joined us for Frankly Speaking 2018, the annual Benjamin Franklin House debate competition in collaboration with the US Embassy and The Daughters of the American Revolution (Walter Hines Page Chapter). Teams travelled from Coventry, London and Leeds to join us and this year the event was hosted by Bloomberg at their new London head office.

Throughout the course of the day students were challenged to address questions related to the environment, tuition fees, a second UK referendum on EU membership and space exploration.  The standard throughout the day was high, with judges impressed by the debating skills and research of the students.

Lucas Cury from Southbank International School in Westminster won first prize in the Years Ten/Eleven category: a tour of the Houses of Parliament with the Rt Hon. the Lord Cope of Berkeley – made possible with support from the DAR; Southbank International School also won the Years Ten/Eleven team debate.

The overall winning team in the Year Twelve/Thirteen category was Brampton Academy featuring debaters Melanie Nneka Onoyo and Osauewese Omoragbon. Isla Lury from Prince Henry’s Grammar School, Otley won the Year Twelve/Thirteen individual first prize, a place at the Benjamin Franklin Transatlantic Fellows Summer Institute  at Wake Forest University, North Carolina. Isla will be joining students this summer from across the US and Europe, she will explore American culture and politics and opportunities to improve civil society. Team prizes were also awarded.

All participants will be invited to a reception at Benjamin Franklin House. Many thanks to the US Embassy, Bloomberg and the DAR for their partnership, support and expertise.

Remembering Lady Joan Reid

It is with great sadness that we report the loss of Lady Joan Reid, who passed away on Friday, 10 November 2017.

She was the Benjamin Franklin House’s Historian and also served for nearly 15 years as a Governor.  Born in 1932 on a train to her doctor mother in India, she fittingly lived in fascinating places, among them, Borneo, Nigeria, Kenya, Thailand and Australia.  She supported her husband Sir Bob Reid who would serve as Chairman of Shell UK among other important posts, and their three sons, of whom – and eventually their families – she was most proud.  It required a practical nature and flexibility, which she had in abundance. During those years she taught in schools, lectured on art and culture, established charities and became a careers advisor.

It was while serving on the Council for the Royal Society of Arts in the late 1990s that she discovered Benjamin Franklin House, which the Society had taken an interest in given Franklin’s role as its first international member.  Her passion for American history, cultivated as an early Fulbright scholar at Sweet Briar College in Virginia, ensured she would become critical to the project to turn a derelict building into a must-see heritage site, recruiting Sir Bob to Chair (1999-2007) along the way.

Her exquisite curiosity and capacity for knowledge ensured that she became Britain’s leading Franklin scholar. Walter Isaacson, award winning author of Benjamin Franklin, An American Life, thanked her for “being both meticulous and unflinching in her crusade to separate facts from lore.  In doing so, she expended not only an enormous amount of intellectual energy but a huge pile of colored Post-it notes filled with suggestions.”  Benjamin Franklin’s Author in Residence, George Goodwin, noted in the dedication to his 2016 book, Benjamin Franklin in London, the “hours of insight about a man of so many talents and ambitions,” that Lady Reid provided.

She helped shape our Historical Experience which uses Franklin’s words, live performance, sound and visual projection to tell his London story.  She delivered countless lectures on Franklin and wrote many articles highlighting the way Franklin thought and influenced humanity.  She worked with clients of neighbouring homeless charity, The Connection, to interest them in writing and recording their lives as Franklin did in his Autobiography.  She was a judge for our annual young writer’s literary prize and early House science fairs.  She turned her dining room into a project office when the House was in the final stages of conservation, and she was there when the ribbon was cut by a UK Foreign Secretary and US Ambassador, to officially open the House for the first time to the public as a dynamic museum and educational facility.

During her career she had been Founder and Chair of the Unicorn School for Dyslexic Children, Chairman of Club L International, a Trustee of YMCA College and the London Mozart Players, Chairman of the British Federation of Women Graduates Charitable Foundation and so much more.  She was brilliant and generous in every way.  We will miss her greatly and are considering ways we can honour her legacy.

Obituary in The Scotsman