Sadly, the early history of Western free reed instruments is somewhat cloudy, but if we are defining the harmonica as a mouth-blown free reed instrument where the notes of the scale are selected by the player's mouth, rather than fingers, the usual answer to this question is that it was invented by sixteen year old Christian Buschmann in 1821. Buschmann called his new instrument the "Aura" or "Mundaeoline". However, most of what we are told about Buschmann comes from a book written about him by one of his descendents, Heinrich Buschmann. Christian Friedrich Ludwig Buschmann, der Erfinder der Mund- und der Handharmonika was written in 1938, during a time when Germany was very keen to demonstrate its superiority over other nations. Because of this, many of the books written during this period tend to downplay the achievements of other countries, often to the point of deliberate falsification. (The Germans are far from the only nation guilty of this. British reference books often identify Sir Charles Wheatstone as the inventor of the harmonica and older American texts often used to credit Benjamin Franklin - this is doubly erroneous as he was associated with the glass harmonica, an entirely different type of instrument and far from inventing it, he merely added some improvements to it.) The date this book gives for Buschmann's invention is 1821, a date repeated in almost every history of the harmonica written since then, describing the aura as being four inches long and having 15 steel reeds mounted side by side, perhaps intended merely as an aid to tuning, rather than as a musical instrument. However, independent confirmation of this date is lacking and in fact, a letter from Christian Buschmann written in 1828 to his father (who was living in Britain at the time) mentions a harmonica-like instrument that Buschmann Junior had only recently invented. It is described as being four inches high and four inches in diameter (suggesting a circular shape, although some have speculated that the instrument may have been shaped like a cube), with 21 reeds capable of playing in six part harmony. It is possible that this is a development of an earlier design, but in the absence of any contemporary documentation, any surviving examples of these instruments or even pictures of them, or any details about Buschmann's alleged patent, the whole story is best taken with a very large pinch of salt.
In the 1820s many other people were experimenting with similar instruments so it is probably unwise to credit any single person with its invention. In Vienna in 1824, Georg Anton Reinlein was granted a patent for the "fabrication of a harmonica in the 'Chinese manner'", although this actually refers to a bellows-driven instrument, rather than what we would today call a harmonica. However, he was certainly making "mundharmonikas" by 1828, as this article from the Wiener Zeitung of September that year clearly shows:
Austria, Vienna in particular, was an early centre of harmonica production which came to be somewhat overshadowed by the German companies. By the mid-1830s, the company founded by Wilhelm Anton Thie (who invented the Wiener System, or Viennese style tremolo harmonica) was one of the most succesful manufacturers of harmonicas and continued to dominate the market for several decades.
In Britain in the 1820s, noted scientist Charles Wheatstone was busy studying free reeds, although he was mainly concerned with instruments that used buttons to select notes, such as his Symphonium (patented in 1829), which later evolved into the concertina family of instruments.
Over in the USA in that same decade, an organ builder called James Bazin was also building free reed instruments. In an issue of The Musical World and Times dated April 9th 1853, it is claimed that Bazin was inspired after stuyding a German-made free reed pitch pipe that was sent to him for repair in 1821. At the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, there is an example of one of Bazin's harmonicas, dating from something like 1830. It is a two octave diatonic instrument in the key of B, having 15 blow reeds, much like Buschmann's aura. The MFA example has the word "patent" engraved upon it, although there are no records of any patents being awarded to Bazin for mouth blown free reed instruments. Around the same time, Lewis Zwahlen of New York was also manufacturing harmonica-like instruments, such as this this one from the Alan Bates collection. Although described as a "chord harmonica", these were actually intended to be played melodically. According to an book from that period, Instructions for the Ćolina (published by Bourne of New York, 1830), the player is expected to pick out individual notes from each group of reeds, jumping from one group to another as the tune progresses, something that must have required considerable dexterity.
Shortly after the invention of the Aura, Buschmann began to make bellows-driven instruments he called the "Handharmonika", or "Handaeoline ", which were some of the earliest members of the accordion family. Accordions had two sets of reeds - one responding to positive pressure, the other responding to negative pressure. A Bohemian called Richter (whose first name may have been Joseph, Anton, Jacob, or perhaps none of the above) seems to have borrowed this idea to make the modern diatonic harmonica with both blow and draw reeds, as well an accordion-inspired note layout - an arrangement which to this day is called the "Richter System". Various dates are given for Richter's innovation, ranging from 1826 to 1857. (For more on this topic, please see this page.) Also involved in the production of harmonicas in Germany from the late 1820s onwards were Christian Messner in Trossingen, Johann Wilhelm Rudolph Glier in Klingenthal and Ignaz Hotz in Knittlingen (father of Friedrich Hotz, who later developed the Knittlinger System octave harmonicas).
These novel instruments became very popular very quickly and many factories opened to fill the demand for mouth organs. Christian Messner opened one of the first ones in Trossingen in 1827. Johann Christian Seydel and Christian August Seydel began making harmonicas in 1847 and founded a factory in Klingenthal shortly afterwards, which is currently the oldest harmonica factory in the world. The most famous of all harmonica makers, Hohner, set up their business in Trossingen in 1857 and subsequently bought out many of the smaller companies. Initially, harmonicas were made by hand - combs were carved from wood, reeds were hammered from brass wire and fitted to individually to reedplates. In their first year in business, Matthias Hohner's family business made 650 harmonicas. However in 1880, Hohner set up mass production assembly lines to turn out harmonicas in unprecedented quantities. By 1887 they were making one million of them annually and by 1920, the figure had risen to 20 million! That same year, the total output of harmonicas from Germany exceeded 50 million - of these, 22.8 million went to the US, 5.4 million to the UK, 3.1 million to India and 1.3 million to Italy. In fact, there were very few countries to which the harmonica was not exported and factories were also being set up in many parts of the world to try to keep up with the demand.
In addition to the Richter System harmonicas, many other types were developed, probably the most important one being the slide chromatic harmonica. This was brought out by Hohner around 1910, although there are patents for similar instruments dating back to the late 1800s and early 1900s. Essentially these are two diatonic harmonicas in one casing, one tuned a semi-tone above the other with a button operated slider to swap between them. Hohner's patent for their Chromonica was granted in 1928 (US pat# 1671309 to David Newman, an employee of Hohner USA), although the instrument had been on the market for a few years by then. The ten holed Chromonica 260 was pictured in the January 1910 issue of Music Trade Review and described as the "latest style" from Hohner and it is featured in Hohner's 1911 catalog, although I have no idea why it took almost twenty years for the design to be patented.
Other harmonicas were designed to play chordal accompaniment, bass lines or special effects, with new designs still coming out even today, although the basic diatonic and chromatic models account for most harmonicas in use.
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