125 years ago, Hohner released what was to become their most popular model, the world's best selling harmonica and possibly the world's best selling musical instrument. This was their model number 1896, better known to us as the Marine Orchestra. Or was it the the Up To Date? Or the Orpheus Concert? In fact, it was all of these and possibly some other names too, but the name by which most of us know this instrument is The Marine Band. The name Marine Band was trademarked in both the US and Germany in 1896.
In 1897, US patent 588920 was granted to Jacob Hohner, the eldest son of the company's founder. The main focus of the patent was the cover design, which was used on all the 1896 models and a few others, although not on all the other instruments with the name Marine Band. The patent claimed:
Each cover-plate is free from sharp angles or ridges, and hence is as free as possible to vibrate throughout its entire width, as such sharp angles or ridges serve to stiffen the plate and hinder it from fulfilling its function as a sounding-board. This freedom of vibration is greatly extended by securing the coverplates at the ends by lugs or ears, which are separated from each other. Thus, as will be readily understood, each cover-plate is held only at four points by narrow lugs and, being without any ribs, ridges or corners, is perfectly free to vibrate throughout its entire length and width, even down to its line of contact with the reed-plate at the front. Such a result adds largely to the power of the instrument and has not been achieved by any construction in harmonicas hitherto known to me.
In addition to the above advantages the curved form of cover-plate permits the latter to extend higher above the reeds about the middle of their lengths, thereby giving more room above them without increasing the thickness of the mouthpiece or producing a clumsy instrument, as would be the case if the front portion of the cover-plate sloped upward in a straight line to the same height and then extended backward in a flat surface, as in those constructions hitherto known. By this increase in the space between the reeds and the cover-plate a larger volume of air, to be thrown into vibration, is inclosed and the power of the harmonica, for that reason, greatly enhanced. Besides this such an enlarged space gives better opportunity for the passage of air to or from the reeds, and hence a purer clearer tone results.
This may have been more wishful thinking than solid acoustical science. Coverplates have little in common with the soundboard of stringed instruments and once they are in a harmonica player's firm grasp, any freedom of vibration is severely restricted. However, those little gaps at each end of the covers allowed for a tonal projection that was quite different from other harmonicas. Originally made from brass, in the early 20th century the covers were changed to German silver (not actually silver, but a copper alloy), then in the early 1920s, they were changed to nickel plated steel. Around this time, the shape of the covers was also changed, from the four narrow lugs of the patent, to the shape that is still in use today. Throughout all these changes, the Marine Band kept the distinctive tone that made it the favourite harmonica for players of all ages, abilities and styles of music, including the US Marine Band, although they took almost thirty years to adopt their namesake:
UK harmonica players of a certain age will remember the excitement in the late 70s when the Marine Band was first made available over here, replacing the Echo Super Vamper (although the only difference between the ESV and the MB was the engraving on the upper cover). Finally, British players could have the same harp that was played by Sonny Terry, Little Walter and every other big name in blues harmonica. Unfortunately, we were rather late to the party and the quality of the Marine Band was already starting to decline and by the time its 100th birthday approached, Hohner's flagship harmonica was just a shadow of its former self. However, this decline was to have an unexpected benefit, inspiring a new cottage industry in the 1990s, the making of customised diatonic harmonicas. Enamoured of the custom Marine Bands built by Joe Filisko and Richard Sleigh, Hohner Consultant Steve Baker wondered if some of the improvements they made to their custom harmonicas could be applied to factory-made instruments. With assistance from Rick Epping and the Hohner R&D department, along with support and encouragement from Product Manager Gerhard Müller and CEO Arthur Chuang, the venerable Marine Band was overhauled and upgraded and is now once again the standard by which all other diatonic harmonicas are judged.
For more details on how the Marine Band has changed over the years, please visit this page.
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