The harmonica is, almost certainly, a direct decendant of ancient mouth-blown, free-reed instruments from South-east Asia, possibly China or Laos, which fround their way to Europe in the early 18th century.
The popular story of the harmonica, as we know it today, begins in Berlin, sometime between 1821 and 1824, when a young German instrument maker named Christian Friedrich Ludwig Buschmann (who worked for his father, Johann, a pipe organ builder) allegedly registered the first European patents for his new musical invention, the ‘aura’. About four inches long and equipped with fifteen reed tongues, the aura was originally intended for use only as a tuning aid, to assist in the manufacture of a larger keyboard-based instrument known as the terpoidion, invented by Johann and produced by the family business. It is worth noting, however, that independent verification of Buschmann’s story is sketchy at best, and that the alleged patents have never been uncovered. Indeed, the primary source for his story is a book written by one of his descendants in 1938 – a time when Germany seemed to be trying to take credit for almost every major invention in human history.
In the 1820s, many other people were experimenting with similar instruments, so it is probably unwise to credit any single person with its invention. It seems highly likely that other manufacturers in central Europe were developing similar instruments, and many other factories had sprung up in various parts of Germany by 1830 to fill the demand for the popular new ‘mundharmonika’ (mouth accordian). The first of these may well have been opened by Christian Messner at Trossingen in 1827, although, harmonicas were also being produced by Johann Glier at Klingenthal and by Ignaz Hotz at Knittlingen by the late 1820s.
Meanwhile, harmonicas were being manufactured across the border in Austria. There is documentary evidence that these instruments were being sold in Vienna in 1825, and by the mid-1830s, Wilhelm Anton Thie rivalled the leading German manufacturers. Indeed, Thie’s company continued to be one of the market leaders for several decades.
Another popular story, which has been perpetuated, dates from a few years later, when a Bohemian named Richter, supposedly, took the idea further by adding a second row of reeds above the first but oriented in the opposite direction. It is also claimed that Richter tuned the reeds in such a way to enable chords to be be played to imitate the sound of an accordian, although, whether he invented this specific tuning is open to conjecture. The layout accredited to him, however, is still used as the standard tuning for ten-hole ‘diatonic’ harmonicas today, and is known as the ‘Richter System’. What it seems Richter was the first to do was to sandwich a wooden comb between two reed plates (the upper for blown notes; the lower for drawn notes) to produce the basic design by which harmonicas are made to this day.
In 1847, Christian August Seydel and his brother, Johann, began making harmonicas and, shortly afterwards, opened a factory at Klingenthal in Saxony. Upon Christian’s death, in 1882, his sons Richard and Moritz took over the business and re-registered the company as C A Seydel Söhne (C A Seydel & Sons), under which it still trades today. The operation remains on the original site, making it the world’s oldest harmonica factory.
The best-known name in the history of harmonica production was first seen in 1857, at Trossingen, when Matthias Hohner – who, unlike those before him, was more of an entrepreneur than an inventor – founded his company, and quickly bought out many of the smaller producers in the area. In their first year in business, Hohner made 650 harmonicas. In 1880, he set up mass-production assembly lines to turn out harmonicas in unprecedented quantities and, by 1887, they were churning out more than one million per annum. By 1913, this number had increased to more than 10 million, produced by a workforce which had grown to 3,000. By 1920, annual production had risen to 20 million units. That same year, the total output of harmonicas in Germany exceeded 50 million – of these, 22.8 million went to the US. In fact, there were very few countries to which the harmonica was not exported, and factories were being set up in many other parts of the world to try to keep up with the burgeoning demand.
It is not clear when the term ‘harp’ was first used when referring to the harmonica, but the Carl Essbach Company (est 1901) sold a model called the ‘French Harp’. The company was taken over by C A Seydel Söhne in the 1920s, but perhaps the origin of the term harp originates from the early days of the organisation prior to the takeover.
Of course, being invented in central Europe, harmonicas were not made with the blues in mind. They were designed as a cheap, portable alternative to the accordian, to play European folk and small band music, mainly by alternating between blow and draw chords, played in the key in which the instrument was manufactured.
So how exactly did this jolly sounding instrument become the one used to convey the feelings of despair, desolation and dejection associated with the blues? Hohner introduced his first harmonica to America in 1862 and, by the early twentieth century, tens of thousands of these relatively cheap and portable instruments had found their way to the southern states. Perhaps most importantly, no one told the under-priveleged and exploited black population the purpose for which these instruments had been designed. The early black harp players simply picked up their instruments and began venting their emotions through them in the same way they did with their voices. In fact, the sound created by wailing on a harp was probably seen as emulating the field hollers of the sharecroppers and their ancestors from the days of slavery.
It became apparent that by concentrating mainly on drawn notes, a more soulful or bluesy sound was created. By drawing slightly harder, and changing the shape of the mouth, the reed could be made to bend and change pitch downwards. These flattened notes fitted in perfectly with the sound of the blues. But using mainly draw notes, plus these new bent or flattened notes, meant that the harp had to be played in a different key from the one intended. By using the second draw hole as the root note (or the key in which the tune was being sung or played), these flattened notes fitted perfectly. Thus, second position (or crossed harp) was discovered, the harmonica was given a totally different, more sombre and melancholy sound, and the ‘blues’ harp was born.