As every schoolboy knows, the harmonica was a simple all-blow instrument until a gentleman named Richter came along, added draw reeds to it and devised the tuning that bears his name to this day. However, as with so many aspects of our favorite instrument, things are not quite that simple...
First of all, who was the mysterious Herr Richter? The earliest published reference to the invention of the Richter harmonica that I have so far been able to locate is from the Zeitschrift für Instrumentenbau (Journal of Instrument Making) Vol. 3, No. 21, published in April 1883. The author of this article gives no first name for Richter, describing him as a Bohemian (meaning someone from the former Czechoslovakian region of Bohemia, rather than any modern interpretation of that term) originating from Maida, although it would seem that this was a misspelling of Haida (also spelled Haid, Hayd or Haidau), now known as Novy Bor.
Many articles about the history of the harmonica draw from this article (either directly, or more often second-, third-, or more-hand) and refer to him just by his surname. Rudolph Chelminski in a 1995 article in the Smithsonian Magazine entitled "Harmonicas are... hooty, wheezy, twangy and tooty" refers to him as "Joseph Richter". This article was used as a source (sometimes with due credit, but often without any credit at all) by many other writers, but when I contacted Mr Chelminski to ask where he got the information regarding Herr Richter's name, he was unable to recall and no longer had the notes he made when preparing the article.
In an earlier issue of ZFI (Vol. 2, No. 24, published in September 1882), mention is made of a harmonica maker called Joseph Richter, who started his business in Haid(a) in 1828 and relocated to the Bavarian town of Regensburg in 1867, whose instruments were distributed in Germany, Austria and Switzerland.
In their book Harmonica Makers of Germany and Austria, Martin Häffner and Lars Lindenmüller suggest that this Joseph Richter was the man who created the Richter harmonica, although they offer no hard evidence to support this assumption. Also based in Haida around that time was a harmonica maker called Anton Richter, whose harmonicas were often described as "Genuine Richters" in the US trade catalogs of the time (see the picture at the top of this page, taken from a John F. Stratton catalog of 1886). Other harmonicas were marketed with just the name "Richter" on the covers, with no indication of maker or place of origin.
Häffner and Lindenmüller have suggested that the Anton Richter branded instruments were actually made by the Seydel company of Klingenthal, although the evidence for this is somewhat circumstantial. I have seen it claimed that Joseph Richter and Anton Richter were bothers, but there is no evidence at all for this. Häffner and Lindenmüller found records of an Anton Richter who was based in Haida around that time and employed as a plumber. It is possible that he is the same Anton Richter whose name appears on harmonicas, but by no means certain. This Anton Richter did have a brother called Joseph, but he is extremely unlikely have been the harmonica maker of that name as the records state that he lived in Haida until his death in 1881, at which time the other Joseph Richter was producing harmonicas in Regensburg.
Häffner and Lindenmüller also mention a Joh(ann) Richter. He is presumably the same person as M. Johs. Richter, who was based in Markneukirchen, in what was then Saxony. He seems to have started out as a maker of strings for musical instruments, but in 1898 he registered trademarks for harmonicas named "Coo-Ee" and "Kookaburra", presumably for the Australian market. His involvement with the harmonica seems to have been short-lived and he went back to concentrating on the manufacture of strings, followed in his business by his son Fa. Johannes Richter Jr. Just to confuse matters further, ZFI Vol. 26, No. 25, mentions an exhibition in Nurnberg in 1906, where a harmonica maker called August Möckel (whose name I have never seen anywhere else) displayed an "original harmonica by Joh. Richter":
As "Joh. Richter" is described as being from Regensburg, he is clearly Joseph Richter, rather than Joh(annes) Richter of Markneukirchen. It is interesting to note that this instrument was in four keys with a grand total of 96 reeds, rather than the 20 reeds we would expect from the most common Richter style harmonica. Presumably this instrument consisted of four 12-hole diatonics mounted on a single comb.
In addition to these three harmonica makers, there were accordions made bearing the name Ludwig Richter and various other Richters seem to have been involved in the music industy of the time. As this was a rather common surname in that part of the world and records from that period are far from complete, relationships, if any, between these people are likely to remain unknown.
So when did Richter come up with his innovation? Three different dates are given for his invention, depending on which harmonica histories you consult: 1826, 1857 and 1879. The latter date can be discounted immediately. By 1870, there was already a tutor book for the Richter harmonica in print in the USA: The Mouth Harmonica Instruction Book, by Oliver Ditson. I suspect that this piece of misinformation is taken from a much quoted comment by Matthias Hohner himself:
Im jahre 1879 wurde eine neue sort harmonika eingeführt, welche besonders nach Amerika sehr großen Anklang fand und hat sich die große Nachfrage bis heute nach dorthin erhalten.
(In the year 1879 a new type of harmonica was introduced which met with particularly great approval in America and has received the greatest demand there until this day.)
Hohner seems to be talking here of the date that his company first exported the Richter harmonica to the US, not the date that the Richter harmonica was invented.
1826, on the other hand, seems much too early. In the late 1820s, the Aeolian or Aeolina was being described as "a new musical instrument, now exciting in an unusual degree the attention of the public" (quoted from the Februrary 1829 issue of the English music journal The Harmonicon). The aeolian was little more than a bare reedplate, a harmonica without a comb or covers.
Even by 1830, the German Aeolian Tutor (published by Willis & Co in London) and the virtually identical Instructions for the Aeolina or Mund-Harmonica (published by Bourne in New York) show the most advanced form of this instrument as being the Pandean Aeolian, a simple all-blow instrument still a long way from the Richter harmonica. So if 1826 is too early and 1879 is too late, then is 1857 just right? Well, perhaps. The Zeitschrift für Instrumentenbau article mentioned above says that the Richter harmonica was invented 23 1/2 years earlier. As the article was published in 1883, that would place its invention around 1860. However the same article is supposed to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Richter harmonica, placing its birth around 1857. I willingly admit that my translation skills are not at their best when it comes to 19th century German, however I think it is safe to assume that this means that the Richter harmonica was devised some time in the late 1850s.
So, on to the final question: what exactly did Richter invent? He is credited with ingeniously adding a second set of reeds that were mounted in a reversed manner, allowing them to sound when the player inhales through the harmonica. However, if he came up with this idea in the 1850s, then it really wasn't much of an innovation. Even back in the late 1820s, there were aeolinas that had draw reeds as well as blow reeds and in Cyril Demian's 1829 patent for the very first accordion, his instrument clearly had reeds that sounded when the bellows were closed (equivalent to blow reeds) and reeds that sounded when the bellows were opened (equivalent to draw reeds). It would seem very strange indeed that it took another three decades for draw reeds to be added to the harmonica. So what about the so-called "Richter tuning". Actually, when we use the term "Richter System", strictly speaking we are describing the physical construction of the instrument, rather than the arrangement of notes. The Richter System harmonica has a comb sandwiched between two reedplates, the upper one with the blow reeds and the lower one with the draw reeds. Each chamber in the comb leads to a pair of reeds, one blow and one draw, with a single reed being sounded for each note of the scale. The tuning scheme used on the Richter System harmonica has varied a little over the last century and a half, but is essentially the same as that used on other types of harmonica, such as the Viennese octave and tremolo harmonicas, the Knittlinger octave harmonicas and others (for more details see this page). In fact, the same principle is used as the basis for the note layout of the diatonic accordion and various mouth-blown free reed instruments that came out of Europe in the 19th century. Was it devised by Richter? Probably not. This tuning scheme seems to have been used on accordions almost from their first invention and was certainly established by the mid 1800s. US patent number 11062 (the earliest US accordion patent, granted to Anthony Faas in 1854), clearly shows a keyboard layout that is based on this typical diatonic arrangement, suggesting it was the so-called Richter tuning was the standard layout for diatonic accordions prior to that date.
Just to add to the confusion, there is in the Germanisches Nationalmuseum a Nuremberg merchant's catalog (shelfmark: Bibliotek 4º quer H 1639 d) dated 1834 which shows a 10-hole harmonica with an ivory mouthpiece. Concertina historian Stephen Chambers has in his collection what appears to be an 8-hole version of this same style of instrument:
The tuning of this harmonica seems to have been:
If hole 1 draw were a G#, then this would be identical to holes 3 - 10 of a typical 10-hole Richter harmonica in the key of A. Of course, there is no guarantee that this particular instrument dates from 1834, or that those harmonicas made in 1834 had the same tuning, but it is interesting nonetheless. It should also be noted that this instrument has the draw reeds mounted on the lower reedplate with the fixed ends towards the rear and the blow reeds mounted on the upper reedplate with the fixed ends towards the front of the instrument, in the same manner as most modern Richter harmonicas.
So what do we know for certain? Almost nothing, unfortunately. Although the harmonica is quite a recent invention when compared with many musical instruments, it was never considered important enough to document much of its development at the time and now, more than a century and half later, the trail is rather cold. Until someone invents a time machine, we are left with guesswork, half-truths and oversimplification.
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