Two of the items in my harmonica collection that I am most proud of, are an all-plastic diatonic and its big brother, an all-plastic chromatic (thanks, Al!), both of them designed by one of the great pioneers of harmonica design, Finn Magnus. Many of the older people reading this may have had a Magnus harmonica as their first instrument, perhaps a Magnus Indian Chief, maybe even one of his "Keymonicas", or his all-plastic concertinas or accordions. Well, let's take a look at the man behind all of these.
Finn Haakon Magnus's story is almost the classic "American Dream". He arrived in 1925, fresh from Denmark, unable to speak a word of English, made a million, won all manner of design awards, went bankrupt and bounced back again. His experiences in the world of business led him to write a book called "How I Made A Million" and a large part of his biography ("The Finn Magnus Story", Mark Hunter, Odin Press 19601) is dedicated to his advice for the would-be entrepreneur. His reasoning behind the all-plastic harmonica is a perfect example of his business mind at work. During the Second World War, German-made harmonicas became impossible to buy in America and Magnus sensed a gap in the market needing to be filled. Almost since the harmonica was invented, it has been a favorite with military personnel - easy to carry, easy to play, a harp makes a perfect companion in the battlefield - and here was a full-scale war in progress, with no harps for the troops. During wartime, there are shortages of many things, but metals, especially brass, are in particularly short supply. Brass, of course, is what the most important parts of the harp - the reeds - are made from. Magnus searched for a substitute material to make reeds from and finally settled on plastic. Plastic had many advantages over the usual materials: it could be easily and cheaply mass produced (especially after Magnus had reduced the number of parts in a diatonic harp from more than fifty, to just five!), it was resistant to extremes of temperature, had no metal parts to corrode and no wooden parts to swell up due to humidity, was resistant to moulds and fungi and very easy to disinfect after use (according to one story, a Magnus harp was found on the beach at Normandy, several years after D-day - once the barnacles were scraped off, it played as well as ever!). Of course you can't have everything and the trade-off here was that they sounded pretty terrible, but it was certainly some clever marketing on Magnus's part and he won a valuable contract with the American government, making a substantial part of his first fortune.
At the height of their production, Magnus's factory was producing one harmonica every one and a half seconds. Magnus holds more American patents for harmonica design than anyone else (not to mention British and other patents), although he has also invented such things as an improved table tennis bat, a plastic bagpipe, a championship pole-vaulting technique, a deep-sea fishing cruiser, a new personnel handling method and so on. Not to mention his achievements as an athlete, champion beer salesman, authority on fish migration, nominee for the Governership of New Jersey, etc., etc.
Former "Newsweek" editor, Samuel T. Williamson, wrote a book about Magnus called "The Man Who Learned From Ford" (Magnus worked at the Ford plant in Kearny, New Jersey). Perhaps before too long, we might see a book called "The Man (or "Woman") Who Learned From Magnus". You never know ...
1. Used copies of this book turn up on Amazon.com from time to time.
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