It was on this day in 1706 that Benjamin Franklin was born in Boston, though a calendar change means it’s more typically marked on January 17th.

It’s just one of the many interesting and surprising facts about Franklin’s life.

And here’s another one: some of the greatest composers of all time wrote pieces to be played on an instrument Benjamin Franklin invented.

It was called the glass armonica, aka bowl organ, glass harmonium, hydrocrystalophone, etc.

Franklin’s foray into musical invention began in the 1760s; he attended a concert which featured someone playing musical glasses, the ones that can be “tuned” to different notes depending on how much water they contain.

He thought he could design an instrument that made the same beautiful sounds but was a little easier to set up and operate.

His creation was a long row of glass bowls, separated by cork, mounted on an iron rod.

A musician would operate a foot pedal to rotate the bowls, dip their hands into water and then touch their fingers to the edges of the bowls, making sounds that Franklin’s wife Deborah called “the music of the angels.”

The glass armonica was a hit.

Thousands were made and played all over Europe and the United States.

Franklin himself would take one with him when he traveled to play songs for friends and music lovers.

He even wrote a few pieces himself, but by then, big name composers were interested.

Mozart and Beethoven composed for the glass armonica!

But as the instrument grew more popular, there were also problems.

Several armonica players came down with muscle cramps, dizziness and other symptoms, and they blamed the instrument.

Rumors flew that the “music of the angels” was actually summoning the spirits of the dead, or maybe magic, to drive living people mad!

The lead paint used on the glass bowls may have been poisoning some players.

Eventually the so-called “killer instrument” ended up falling out of favor.

Franklin ignored the critics and continued to play his instrument for the rest of his life.

And there are still armonica players today; fortunately, they all seem ok.


Benjamin Franklin once said that of all his inventions, the glass armonica gave him the “greatest personal satisfaction.”

What it didn’t give him was any money.

Franklin didn’t patent the instrument, or any of his other inventions, either.

He said that he had gained greatly from other people’s inventions, and so creating and sharing his own creations with the world was a way to serve, and hopefully benefit, other people.

Benjamin Franklin’s Glass Armonica (Franklin Institute)

Ben Franklin’s Killer Instrument: The Glass Armonica (Ripley’s)

11 Surprising Facts About Benjamin Franklin (

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Photo by Tonamel via Flickr/Creative Commons