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Since the very first patents were issued in the fifteenth century, there have been literally millions of patents covering every aspect of human ingenuity - including the harmonica. Out of the many hundreds of harmonica-related patents, I have selected a few historically interesting, technically intriguing, or just plain weird ones to share with you here. Some of the designs went on to become well-known and well-loved instruments, but many never made it further than the drawing board.

Patents are useful documents for studying the development of technology, but it is probably wise to exercise some caution about drawing historical conclusions based on the information they present. A patent does not necessarily prove when something was invented, it merely records who was granted the patent for it and when. A case in point is the design for the Hohner 260, the first of what eventually became the standard chromatic harmonica design. Patents appearing to cover the design of the 260 were issued in Germany in 1928 and in the US in 1928 and 1930, each one credited to a different inventor. However, the 260 (originally called simply Chromatic Harmonica, the name later being changed to Chromonica) had already been on the market for some time, having first appeared in Hohner's 1911 catalog.

Having said that, sometimes patents are the only source of information we have for the development of some aspects of the harmonica and other parts of the harmonica's history are unrecorded in the patent archives. Austria was an early centre of harmonica development, but Austria did not start to issue patents until the very end of the 19th century. The USA has issued patents since 1790 (although individual states had issued patents prior to that date) and harmonica-like instruments were being made there as early as the 1830s, but for some reason nobody seems to have applied for a harmonica patent until the 1870s (although many older US patents were destroyed in the Patent Office fire of 1836, so it is not impossible that an early harmonica patent may have been lost). This means that the most historically interesting period of harmonica evolution is not covered by the patent record. Thankfully, we are still left with plenty of interesting harmonica patents.

Going around in circles

Why should the harmonica always be a rectangular shape?

US Patent 904914, granted in 1908 to A. W. Anderson - a harmonica teething ring
US Patent 925778, granted in 1909 to R. L. Lanier Senior - a round harmonica
British Patent 974546, granted in 1964 to Shin-Hua Ts'ui - more round harmonicas
British Patent 2102180, granted in 1983 to Chien-Shu Hwang - another round harmonica
British Patent 2334130, granted in 1998 to Michael James Pennington - even more round harmonicas

Unholy hybrids

See what happens when we combine a harmonica with another instrument.

German Patent 17142, granted in 1882 to G. A. Dörfel and K. R. Franke - a harmonica with strings and bells
German Patent 136456, granted in in 1902 to Otto Wiedlich - a combined harmonica and accordion
US Patent 627569, granted in 1899 to C. E Brown - a combined harmonica and zither
US Patent 644022, granted in 1900 to W. W. McCallip - another combined harmonica and zither
German Patent 377076, granted in 1923 to Hermann Gonschorowski - yet another combined harmonica and zither
US Patent 173991, granted in 1929 to F. C. Peslin - one more combined harmonica and zither

The bells, the bells...

Harmonicas with bells - what else?

German Patent 15231, granted in 1881 to Ernst Leiterd - a harmonica with a bell
German Patent 15375, granted to Otto Sack in 1881 - a harmonica with two bells
German Patent 204093, granted in 1908 to the firm of Andreas Koch - a harmonica with bells instead of reeds

Classic designs

A few baby pictures of what grew up to become famous examples of the harmonica maker's craft.

US Patent 588920, granted in 1897 to Jacob Hohner - the Marine Band
German Patent 117595, granted in 1901 to Ferdinand Strauss - the Harmonophone
German Patent 131825, granted in 1902 to to Robert Field and Albert Hanson - the Hohner Organola
US Design Patent 36692, granted in 1903 to Hans Hohner - the Hohnerphone
US Patent 821492, granted in 1906 to Hans Hohner - the Hohner Chimewood
US Patent 870207, granted in 1907 to Christian Weiss - the Pipeolion
German Patent 184872, granted in 1907 to Hohner - the Trumpet Call
German Patent 242031, granted in 1911 to Hohner - the Ironclad
US Patent 1951928, granted in 1934 to L.A. Elkington - the Harmonicaphone
US Design Patent 116069, granted in 1939 to John Vassos - the Hohner Echo Elite
German Patent 853853, granted in 1952 to Walter Hohner - the Chromonica Deluxe
German Patent 937213, granted in 1955 to Victor Weckherlin and Karl Scherer - the Hohner Comet
German Patent 942127, granted in 1956 to Kurt Mast - the Hohner Chrometta
German Patent 1255465, granted in 1968 to Cham-Ber Huang - the Hohner Chordomonica
US Patent 3757025, granted in 1973 to Cham-Ber Huang - the CBH Chromatic
German Patent 4129816, granted in 1992 to Horst Jakubaschk - the Hohner CX-12

Chromatic chronology

Early patents for the chromatic harmonica.

German Patent 19221, granted in 1882 to Adolf Glass Junior
German Patent 19222, granted in 1882 to Johann Wilhelm Schunk
German Patent 36723, granted in 1886 to Carl Essbach
US Patent 443607, granted in 1890 to John Oefinger and Benjamin F. Butler
US Patent 574625, granted in 1897 to Hugh Paris
British Patent 19296, granted in 1899 to Edward John Matthews
German Patent 100650, granted in 1899 to Friedrich August Böhm
German Patent 147521, granted in 1904 to Hohner
US Patent 882575, granted in 1908 to Joseph E. Murphy
German Patent 378100, granted in 1922 to Walter Dietze
US Patent 1671309, granted in 1928 to David Newman
German Patent 470354, granted in 1929 to Otto Hermann Böhm
French Patent 659763, granted in 1929 to Kenichiro Hirose
German Patent 490654, granted in 1930 to Hohner
German Patent 1752988, granted in 1930 to William J. Haussler
German Patent 490654, granted in 1941 to Otto Hermann Böhm

If only...

Harmonicas I really wish they had made.

German Patent 22453, granted in 1883 to Theodor Meinhold - harmonica with bellows-driven accompaniment reeds
German Patent 23753, granted in 1883 to Ernst Leiterd - harmonica with bells, horns and bellows-driven accompaniment reeds
US Patent 360857, granted in 1887 to Arthur F. Crandall - hand-cranked tremolo device
German Patent 96803, granted in 1898 to Jacob George Smith - complex chromatic harmonica
US Patent 880709, granted in 1908 to Samuel Slocum Barlow - harmonica with reeds mounted in pipes
US Patent 2565100, granted in 1951 to John R. Tate - note-bending harmonica with built in pick-up
German Patent 802306, granted in 1951 to Walter Hohner - tremolo or octave chromatic harmonica
German Patent 841257, granted in 1952 to Friedrich Löchel - chromatic harmonica with individual sliders for each hole
US Design Patent 171508, granted in 1953 to J. Edward Legler - ornamental design for harmonica
German Patent 1004024, granted in 1957 to Gerhard Kaiser and Emil Jetter - chromatic with double-action slide
German Patent 1080385, granted in 1960 to Hans A. Bruder - harmonica-like instrument with buttons
French Patent 1194090, granted in 1960 to Harmonika Národní Podnik - chromatic polyphonic harmonica
Swiss Patent 497014, granted in 1968 to Henry Kaech - harmonica with sliding mouthpiece
British Patent 2067816, granted in 1981 to Frederick Robjent - harmonica with means to prevent broken reeds from entering the player's mouth

Can't find a harmonica teacher?

Harmonica teaching devices.

US Patent 176124, granted in 1876 to Cornelius St. John
US Patent 922121, granted in 1909 to Russell Fraser
US Patent 1573242, granted in 1926 to Walter Hand
US Patent 1722852, granted in 1929 to Frank Miller
US Patent 1797613, granted in 1931 to Walter Peterson
US Patent 2655830, granted in 1953 to Anthony Balint
US Patent 3589232, granted in 1971 to Joseph Peters
US Patent 4402249, granted in 1983 to Alvin Zankman
Japanese Patent 10161519, granted in 1998 to Youjiro Ozawa

Why even bother learning to play?

Harmonicas that play themselves.

US Patent 209492, granted in 1878 to Newman Marshman - player harmonica
US Patent 251930, granted in 1882 to Robert Pain - bellows-blown player harmonica
German Patent 23366, granted in 1883 to Otto Zabekow - "player harmonica"
German Patent 61821, granted in 1892 to Ullmann & Engelmann - "mechanical trumpet"
German Patent 63035, granted in 1892 to Karl Lux - player harmonica
US Patent 744546, granted in 1903 to Henry Hibshman - player harmonica
US Patent 1720991, granted in 1929 to Joseph Le Roy Banks - Rolmonica
US Patent 1750791, granted in 1930 to Herbert Beyer - player harmonica
US Patent 1752978, granted in 1930 to Henry Drotning - QRS Playasax
US Patent 2200430, granted in 1940 to Harry Pullen - PlaRola Organ
US Patent 2479738, granted in 1949 to Jerome Goldstein and Mathew Strumor - "musical toy"
US Patent 2591023, granted in 1952 to Hugh Stevenson - harmonica with pre-set melodies
US Patent 2694333, granted in 1954 to Vincent Costello - Nor-Cos Pocket Organ

The myriad forms

Harmonicas in all shapes and sizes.

US Design Patent 37266, granted in 1904 to Ferdinand Strauss - pistol-shaped harmonica
US Design Patent 148159, granted in 1947 to George Gubbins - harmonica with covers styled after a piano keyboard
US Design Patent 151445, granted in 1948 to Joseph Green - harmonica in the shape of a boot
US Design Patent 151445, granted in 1948 to Samuel Freimauer and Jack Skoloff - fish-shaped harmonica
US Design Patent 170527, granted in 1953 to Christy Del Mas - harmonica ring
US Design Patent 173425, granted in 1954 to Morris Gurtov - harmonica in the shape of a pistol
US Design Patent 175760, granted in 1955 to Egiziano Carloni - harmonica in the shape of an accordion
US Patent 2755696, granted in 1956 to J. E. Legler - airplane shaped harmonica

For more about patents...

... I heartily recommend the following web sites:

US Patent and Trademark Office
Esp@cenet Patent Searches
Patent Information on the Internet
Patent Search Resources
More Patent Resources

I should also add some comments about Google Patent Search. This provides a very convenient way for searching the archives of the US Patent and Trademark Office and similar archives from a few other countries. It also offers at least one feature that the USPTO's own search engine does not - the ability to search the text of older patents. The USPTO search only allows you to search the full text of patents going back to 1976, whereas Google can search the full text of all US patents. However, it does so by using an OCR text search - this can lead to some errors, although generally it is an extremely useful thing to be able to do. There are some limitations too, the most obvious one being that it can only search a limited number of archives and does not seem to be able to search all the patents in each archive. Also the translations from other languages into English, although useful, are of extremely variable quality. For serious patent research, I would advise using some of the resources listed above, although Google Patent Search is certainly a very quick and easy way to browse some patents, especially if you use the Advanced Patent Search rather than the basic.

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