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Patents, Politics and Personalities: The Mechanisation of the English Harp (1794-1845)

This paper was first presented at the Galpin Society Conference, Oxford, England (2013).

Between 1794 and 1845 sixteen makers and inventors registered twenty-two patents for the harp. Three schools of innovation emerged: those concerned with the improvement of the action or mechanism by which modulation was achieved; those which addressed perceived structural weaknesses; and those which sought to improve tone or to produce new musical effects.

Patent enrolment protected intellectual property but also advertised a product to both the industry and wider public. Where successful, it afforded gravitas to a maker, advertising both their ingenuity and financial capacity to develop often expensive and complex innovations. Patent opposition was common and registrations frequently unsuccessful. An attempt to copy an invention (a breach of intellectual property), could be so managed by the patentee as to publicise his innovation.

During the first half of the nineteenth century, registration was both complicated and expensive. In "A Poor Man's Tale of a Patent," published in 1850 in Household Words,Dickens parodies the registration process and reflects the complexity and costs involved: he lists thirty-four offices to which the patentee was required to apply (an exaggeration – there were seven), and to pay charges (he cites a total of £96 7s 8d) before patent enrollment was achieved.

English and French patent registrations (1790-1849)

Despite the challenges of registration, revolution in – and later war with –France (the latter resulting in the post-Napoleonic depression), and the stock market crash of 1825, the rate of patent enrolment increased almost exponentially throughout the nineteenth-century. Between 1790 and 1800, 647 patents were successfully registered in the UK, rising to 924 between 1800 and 1810, 1137 from 1810 to 1820, 1451 between 1820 and 1830, 2452 during the 1830s, and 4587 between 1840 and 1850.

Musical instrument patent registration by decade (1790-1850)

Registration of musical instrument patents similarly increased, though a decline between 1825 and 1835 marks the depression following the 1825 bank crash. Harp patents peaked between 1810 and 1820, and despite a subsequent decline, mirroring a later decline in harp production in London, they form, after the piano, the second largest musical instrument group between 1790 and 1850 (constituting 12% of all music instrument patents).

Musical instrument patent registration by type (1790-1850)

Politics and the Harp

Before the French Revolution Paris was the centre of European harp production and had long been the source of harps for English harpists. Newspaper advertisements placed by Longman and Broderip during the early 1790s, record the importation of French harps by ‘Naderman, Cousineau and Son, and other eminent makers.’ The French Revolution (1788-1789) and subsequent years of political unrest curtailed importation and is likely to have affected production in France.

Argus (London, England), Thursday, January 21, 1790; Issue 264.

The relocation of Sebastien Erard (1752-1831) from Paris to London, in or around 1790, was politically and financially motivated. In 1785 the Strasbourg born piano maker solicited the personal intervention of Louis XVI following a trade dispute with the Guild of Parisian Luthiers. Intervention resulted in Royal patronage and commission. Proximity to or association with Royalty during and following the revolution would have been harmful to business, risking the liberty and lives of those involved.

That the French Revolution damaged Erard’s piano sales in France is clear. Griffiths notes that the sales registers for 1788 and 1789 record 254 and 410 pianos respectively, followed by a decline of over 80% to 76 in 1790. Declining sales, export and trade difficulties, political risk, and a gap in the harp market resulted in Erards opening of a London harp manufactory and sales room, at 18 Great Marlborough Street in 1792. His relocation marked the beginning of harp production in, and the rise of London as the centre of international harp production.

Personalities and Patent Registration

Drawing from Sebastien Erard's 1794 Patent (no. 2016).

Sebastien Erard registered the first English patent (No. 2016) for the harp on 17 October 1794. His innovation replaced the earlier crochet and bequille actions with a fourchette which, when activated by a pedal, rotated to stop the string without altering its alignment. The mechanism was suspended below the neck between two metal plates. Combined with a laminated neck and back Erard’s harp was structurally stronger than the earlier French harps and could support higher tension stringing,

Erard’s new harp was publicised by contemporary harpists and teachers. In August 1796 a report in The Starannounced the endorsement of Madam Krumpholtz (amongst the most famous harpists of her day) who stated that she, ‘prefers those of his manufacture, to all others of the kind that have yet been made.’

By 1797 Madame Krumpholtz had completely abandoned the French pedal harp in favour of Erard’s new instrument. By 1800 Erard had greatly improved his single-action harp. Its strings sounded as clearly when the action was engaged as with open strings.

Drawing from Sebastien Erard's 1801 patent (no. 2502).

On 16 May 1801 Erard registered his first UK patent (No. 2502) for a harp capable of modulating into every practicable scale of music. The patent specification describes a round metallic pin to which the strings are fastened. When activated by the pedals the pin turned and increased the tension of the string by exactly a semitone. An update was registered a year later but this innovation was abandoned before production for sale.

Drawing from Charles Groll's 1807 patent (no. 3059).

In 1807, Charles Groll (1770-1857) registered a patent (No. 3059) the first double-action harp with fourchettes. Groll, a Polish immigrant had been working on the harp for some years and was initially supported financially by Count Michal Kazimierz Oginski (1728-1800). His action used Erard’s linkage system (registered in his 1794 patent) to mechanise two fourchettes for each string rendering the harp fully chromatic. It would appear his harp was never produced. According to Lilliana Osses Adams, Sebastien Erard purchased the patent for between 10,000 and 30,000 red zlotys.

Whilst the amount is difficult to confirm, Pierre Erard acknowledges his uncle’s purchase and Groll’s prior claim in a letter to Sebastien Erard, dated 8 March 1820. In a subsequent letter of 7 July 1820, he recognises the threat posed by Groll’s patent to a potential patent infringement case against Francois Dizi who, according to Pierre, had copied elements of Erard’s double-action. Whether Erard’s acquired Groll’s patent to use his designs or whether he was already working on a similar principal is unknown.

Drawing from Sebastien Erard's 1808 patent (no. 3170).

Erard’s next patent (No. 3170), registered on 24 September 1808, employed two fourchettes acting upon each string in imitation of that by Groll. An update (No. 3332) was registered on 2 May 1810.

Drawing from Sebastien Erard's 1810 patent (no. 3332).

By fixing external linkages between the natural and sharp fourchettes at the bass end of the instrument, Erard was able to fit a deeper and hence stronger neck. This improved the rigidity and stability of the instrument and lead to an increase in string tension; production began in 1811. A damper, although patented, doesn’t appear to have been made. According to Pierre Erard, Sebastien sold £25,000 worth of harps in the first year of production.

Mayer considered transition from single to double action simple writing, ”Persons who play already on the common (single action) harp have only to pay a little more attention to the double motions of the pedals, in less than one week, they will be able to play this new harp.’ He added, ‘This most admirable instrument is executed in the highest perfection, for solidity, elegance and graceful form, useful for demonstrating music in general and must be a great gratification to composers.’

Drawing from Charles Groll's and Frederick Dizi's 1813 patent (no. 3642).

Charles Groll and Francois Dizi jointly registered a patent (No. 3642) on 22 January 1813 that describes a perpendicular harp on which the strings pass between two iron plates that form the neck. The mechanism, a double-action with fourchettes, is housed inside the neck removing the off-centre tension upon the instrument and increasing stability. Pierre Erard’s letters (1814-1831), reveal his competitive nature. His attempts to view innovations by other makers resulted in an undercover visit to the Edward Dodd’s manufactory. Pierre posed as a customer in order to view the Groll/Dizi perpendicular. In a letter to his uncle, dated 11 November 1814, Pierre described the harp as making a “hellish” noise, though Dodd’s father, Thomas (Edward was not present), claimed the harp was unregulated. This unfavourable review, typical of Pierre Erard, probably reflected a partially strung and unregulated harp.

Dizi’s involvement in harp design and manufacture is yet another example of a composer-player directly influencing the development of the harp. This symbiotic relationship strengthened as competition grew within the harp industry. Commission payments recorded in the Erard Ledgers and Erat Journal illustrate composer/player/maker relationships. Mayer’s 1811 publication ’The New invented Harp by Sebastian Erard shortly explained & exemplified,’ coincided with the first sales of Erard’s double-action harps, and ‘A Familiar Method of Instruction for the Harp,’ by Nielson’s includes images and references to Erat’s instruments.

Drawing from Jacob Erat's 1813 patent (no. 3693).

In his patent (No. 3693) registered on 8 May 1813, Jacob Erat (1768-1858) addressed a regulation problem. As string tension increased through the first decade of the nineteenth-century, harp soundboards stretched and bellied upwards compromising the semitone. Erat’s new mechanism combined earlier innovations; the naturals were activated using Erard’s fourchettes; an adjustable lever and pin system (very similar to Cousineau’s bequille), activated the sharp notes . Only four of these harps are known to exist today. In a letter to Sebastien Erard on 25 July 1815 Pierre Erard writes that, ‘Erat has sold some of their double movement. I know that the pedals go wrong.’

A Chancery court case followed Jacob Erat’s death in 1821. Surviving documents (including a will, property leases, an accounts journal, an inventory and a cashbook) reveal an astute businessman. On 21 February 1821, company assets are valued at £18,307. 13s. 11½d. Debts, including legacy payments, total £1606. 17s. 11d.

Between February 1822 and April 1824, dividend payments on investments bequeathed to Martha Erat, Jacob’s wife, total £1057. 17s.; trust account payments to Jacob’s youngest son (William Erat) total £218. 18s. 4d. Legacy payments and dowries are recorded for each daughter; the business was willed to his eldest sons, Jacob and James. Tips and charitable payments are also noted. On 22 April 1822, a payment of two guineas to The Society for Poor Germans, hints at familial origin. Regular purchases of gin, rum, beer and cakes for the men suggests a valued workforce.

In a letter of 27 September 1818, Pierre belittled Jacob Erat’s latest double-action mechanism (presumably a later unsuccessful Erat patent), and on 3 November 1818 he wrote to his uncle stating he intended to oppose this patent. Despite his earlier comments he was careful to attempt to prevent registration. On 21 February 1821, a payment of £50 to ‘Mr Wyatt, for a patent not obtained’ was entered in the Erat journal. ‘Expenses to get the same’ were listed as £14. 15s. 2d. These payments may indicate Pierre Erard’s success in thwarting registration.

Drawing from Robert Willis's 1819 patent (no. 4343).

Between 1818 and 1821 Robert Willis (1800-1875), a mathematician and mechanical engineer, developed a new double-action harp mechanism. His innovation (No. 4343) patented on 13 February 1819, introduced three mechanised bridge pins that, by depression of the pedal, could be applied to or withdrawn from the string. Unlike Erard’s double-action, only one pin was applied to the string at a time. In a letter dated 15 October 1818, Pierre Erard informed Sebastien of Willis’ pending patent noting his intention to oppose it.

Despite typically negative comments, Pierre recognised the mechanical and musical advantages of one bridge contacting the string at a time. This harp was never produced. Willis studied at Cambridge between 1822 and 1826 before being ordained a deacon and priest a year later. He was appointed the Jacksonian professor of natural and experimental philosophy at Cambridge University in 1837.

Drawing from Edward Dodd's 1822 patent (no. 4671).

On 24 April 1822 Pierre Erard, Edward Dodd and James Delveau registered three, consecutively numbered patents for the harp. Dodd’s patent (No. 4671) introduced structural changes intended to increase strength. Rather than laminating the neck in five parts as was common, Dodd proposed a vertically laminate neck by gluing together thin strips of hardwood. By repositioning the soundbox ribs and string-holes parallel to the strings he countered their pull. Dodd’s joint enterprise with Francois Dizi was relatively unsuccessful ending when Dizi and Kalkbrenner left to tour Germany. This patent demonstrates a change of direction. Edward Dodd, whose business was located at 3 Berners Street, probably learnt the basics of his trade in the famous Dodd bow-making business. In December 1824, three years after Jacob Erat’s death, Dodd and Alexander Barry (another harp maker) compiled an inventory of the Erat Manufactory, also on Berners Street on behalf of Erat’s sons, Jacob and James. Proximity to one and other, appointment to write an inventory, and use of identical decoration on some harps suggests collaboration.

Drawing from John Charles Schwieso's 1826 patent (no. 5454).

John Charles Schwieso was perhaps the most unfortunate of the early nineteenth-century harp makers. After being dismissed from Erard in 1816 (where he was employed as a woodworker), he formed a partnership with Frederick Grosjean and a Mr H. Williams who appears to have been a silent partner, his name not appearing and manufactured harps. Together Schwieso, Grosjean and Williams developed the Cambrian harp, a double-strung, double-action. Despite acclaim from the likes of John Parry, patent registration was rejected in 1820 when Pierre Erard petitioned the Attorney General. Both Schwieso and Grosjean were declared bankrupt in 1822; the partnership was dissolved in 1825.

Schwieso’s patent (No. 5454) of 26 August 1826 registered the addition of springs above the fourchettes to aid action stability. By 1830 he is insolvent again and,unable to raise bail, is detained in the Fleet Prison on 14 June 1831.

Drawing from Pierre Erard's 1835 patent (no. 6962).

Pierre Erard’s Patent (No. 6962) of 18 December 1835 registered an extension of the harp range from 43 to 46 strings (C to f7). This is the first patent to do so since his uncle’s first patent in 1794. In order to achieve this Pierre extended the soundboard from approximately 4ft to 4ft 4 inches. A new pedal arrangement (the pedals were recessed into the base of the harp), prevented the instrument from becoming too tall. The Gothic harp, as it became known, was copied by other London makers and became a standard model for the remainder of the century.


Political upheaval in France resulted in the relocation of workforce, the development of the harp in England and the establishment of London as the centre for European production. Subsequent patent registration resulted from political unrest and technical advances, as much musical novelty. Revolution in England, this time industrial, created a climate of innovation marked by the exponential growth of patent registration. London provided access to both supplier and market, to influential harpists, teachers and affluent customers. Competition between makers resulted in industrial espionage; the theft of ideas was common; expensive and complicated patent registration afforded limited protection. Successful makers became extremely wealthy as demonstrated by the valuation of Erat’s estate following his death. Erard, the most successful and prolific harp maker, collected over 250 ‘old master’ painting and purchased Chateau La Muette, a former royal hunting lodge close to Paris in 1820. Business failure was common; Three harp makers (Dodd, Schwieso and Blazdell) were declared bankrupt and the latter two committed to debtor’s prison in 1831 and 1843 respectively. Demand for, and production of the harp declined in London from 1840 onwards. Registration of the final nineteenth-century patent (for a unmechanised, cross-strung instrument), was registered by Jean Henri Pape (a german immigrant) on 1845.

I would like to thank Jon Hunniset who kindly provided some of the drawings included in this article. Other drawings are from the British Library.

A new book, English Harp Patents (1794-1845), will be available soon, and will include transcriptions of all U.K. harp patents and their drawings, .

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