Did Ben Franklin kill Beethoven and Mozart?

  • #1
Ivan Seeking
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Others might not be as dismissive of the onus of the ill-fated instrument, which was invented by Benjamin Franklin in 1761. Over the course of its history, it has been associated with witchcraft, insanity and a mysterious disappearance, and has been postulated as the cause of death of both Beethoven and Mozart.

...But by the early 1800s, playing an armonica became tantamount to having a death wish. Many of its practitioners either died or went insane. When a baby suffered a fatal epileptic seizure at an armonica concert in 1830, it marked the end of public performances.

...German-born Gerhard Finkenbeiner - researched the associations and solved the mystery. The armonica's bowls were originally made using leaded crystal; those who played it probably absorbed high levels of lead through their fingertips and into their bloodstreams. [continued]
http://www.abqtrib.com/albq/nw_local/article/0,2564,ALBQ_19858_3862998,00.html
 
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  • #2
Ivan Seeking
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btw, the title is intended to be a little tongue'n cheek, but the very notion that this could even be remotely possible seemed too incredible to pass. In any event it is an interesting story.
 
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  • #3
Math Is Hard
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What a peculiar story. It seems that Franz Mesmer was also a fan of the armonica and used this in his unusual treatment of patients.
http://www.glassarmonica.com/armonica/mesmer/index.html [Broken]

The glass armonica was a vital ingredient in Mesmer’s ‘magnetic seances’: his patients, mostly ‘hysterical bourgeois women’, were placed in a magnetic tub filled with glass powder and iron filings, and massaged into a relaxed state by the sweet, distant tones of a glass armonica played behind curtains covered with astrological symbols. Then Mesmer himself, clad in a long purple robe, would enter and touch each patient with a white wand, sending them into a magnetic trance from which they awakened fully cured.
 
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  • #4
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I think it does have some credence and could have been an influence in there deaths. Of course, how it could be proven is another story and highly unlikely. In today's terms, it's kinda like Benzene which is in some prescription drugs which the WHO states has no safe levels of consumption. Fluoride is another example which has been put in water supplies in trace elements and used in toothpastes. Being highly toxic and with no health benefits resulting from any studies done, Aluminum companies had to find a way to get rid of all the waste and it was used as Rat poison until these companies lobbied to get rid of it by putting it in the water supply and then in toothpaste since some study showed that kids ages 9-12 gained little benefit in fighting plaque, even though every other age group showed significant worsening due to the sodium fluoride.
 
  • #5
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The Glass Harmonica definitely got a reputation for causing nerve damage, but the place I first read this (I'm trying to remember which book) attributed it to the vibration of the fingers that touched the rotating glass. IIRC the "damage" mentioned was loss of sensation in those fingers.

I'm not sure it's physically possible to absorb enough lead from lead crystal through the skin to hurt someone. I've been under the impression lead had to be ingested to cause harm: people are warned not to eat from lead-glazed pottery, but not warned against touching it.

The people who got nerve damage from the Glass Harmonica were the professional players. I very much doubt Mozart and Beethoven fooled around with it long enough to be a risk, whatever the actual agent of damage is.
 
  • #6
arildno
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As for Beethoven, he most probably died from lead poisoning.
But as I've heard it, it was because Ludwig was inordinately fond of fish, and there are strong reasons to believe that the fish had a lot of lead in them (from industrial waste of some sort, don't ask me what)
 
  • #7
SGT
Lead crystal has been used in the making of glasses and carafes for a long time and I have never heard of people poisoned from drinking from a lead crystal glass liquid that was primarily contained in a lead crystal carafe.
On the other way, lead was used in white and yellow painting and arsenic in green painting.
One theory attributes Napoleon's death to arsenic poisoning from the green wallpaper in his house at St Helena.
 
  • #8
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arildno said:
As for Beethoven, he most probably died from lead poisoning.
This is the first I've heard of this. What are you basing this on?
 
  • #9
arildno
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zoobyshoe said:
This is the first I've heard of this. What are you basing this on?
I heard it on a Norwegian radio program sent over a year ago.
It was sort of a popular lecture, I think, by some doctor i can't remember the name of. he might have been wrong, though.

here's a CNN link from 2000:
http://archives.cnn.com/2000/HEALTH/10/17/beethoven.hair/
 
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  • #10
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SGT said:
Lead crystal has been used in the making of glasses and carafes for a long time and I have never heard of people poisoned from drinking from a lead crystal glass liquid that was primarily contained in a lead crystal carafe.
I did some googling, and lead crystal is, in fact, named as a possible household source of lead poisoning.

Lead poisoning
Address:http://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/bhcv2/bhcarticles.nsf/pages/Lead_poisoning?OpenDocument [Broken]

I don't know what to make of this because it doesn't seem possible that you could leach enough lead out of it to do much harm. Eating a paint chip full of lead oxide, on the other hand, would give you quite a large direct "dose."

The mystery could easily be solved, I suppose, by storing some liquid in lead crystal, and then determining its lead content.

The glass harmonica has to be played with a wet finger. To the extent any of the players occasionally wet their fingers in their mouth while practising or fooling around on the instrument, they could have ingested lead directly.
 
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  • #11
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arildno said:
I heard it on a Norwegian radio program sent over a year ago.
It was sort of a popular lecture, I think, by some doctor i can't remember the name of. he might have been wrong, though.

here's a CNN link from 2000:
http://archives.cnn.com/2000/HEALTH/10/17/beethoven.hair/
I know about that lock of hair and know it was kept in a kind of special glass frame. 100 times the normal amout of lead? I wonder if anyone checked to see if the glass of the frame was lead crystal, or if there were any source of lead in the frame where it was encased for decades?

Beethoven had alot of things wrong with him. In addition to the chronic abdominal pain and "indigestion", he developed gout and "weak eyesight".

His actual death was complex. Staying in bed most of the time, (presumably due to the gout), he became feverish. He asked his nephew to get a doctor but the nephew went off to play billiards instead, and the doctor didn't show up till three days later. He diagnosed B. with pneumonia.

Recovering from that, he nevertheless had more intense "liver and intestinal" pains, and his feet became swollen. At this point he was "operated on". That's all the book says, and there is no telling what the doctor might have done to him unless I find a more detailed source. That was Dec. 1826.

He lingered till March 24, 1827, asked for last rites, and dozed off, only to be awaken briefly during a violent thunderstorm. "Beethoven raised his arm and stretched out his hand to the sky. Then fell back motionless."

That's all culled from The Life & Times of Beethoven, Gino Pugnetti, Curtiss Publishing Co. 1967.
 
  • #12
SGT
zoobyshoe said:
I did some googling, and lead crystal is, in fact, named as a possible household source of lead poisoning.

Lead poisoning
Address:http://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/bhcv2/bhcarticles.nsf/pages/Lead_poisoning?OpenDocument [Broken]

I don't know what to make of this because it doesn't seem possible that you could leach enough lead out of it to do much harm. Eating a paint chip full of lead oxide, on the other hand, would give you quite a large direct "dose."
I don´t know if it is true with lead, but if a painting containing copper arsenide (Scheele´s green) is applied to a wallpaper and because of humidity, the wallpaper becomes moldy, the mold gets rid of the arsenic in a gaseous mixture of arsine, dimethyl and trimethyl arsine. If you breath this vapour you can get very sick and even die, if the exposition is long enough.
 
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  • #13
Ivan Seeking
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  • #14
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Ivan Seeking said:
"Some of the people who performed regularly on the armonica complained that the instrument was upsetting them emotionally. They said that the vibrations were entering their fingertips and causing mental anguish."

Indeed, lead poisoning aside, if you play around with sounding a wine glass by rubbing your finger around the rim, it starts to get too intense pretty quickly, both for the finger and to your ears.

Franklin, himself, though, apparently played his armonica frequently, we learn from this link, and doesn't seem to have had an adverse reaction.
 
  • #15
Math Is Hard
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I just listened to that clip and found the sound of the instrument screechy and annoying. There's something about the pitch that makes me cringe.
 
  • #16
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Lead was everywhere back then, from the pewter they ate off, to the power they did there hair with. I would imagine anyone other then the poor{who ate off wood trenchers} would have a very high lead count.
 
  • #17
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Math Is Hard said:
I just listened to that clip and found the sound of the instrument screechy and annoying. There's something about the pitch that makes me cringe.
How is the intonation? (It won't play for me.) It seems to me it would be just about impossible to cast a series of bowls all in perfect tune, and I'm not sure how they would tune them after the fact, except by making them slightly oversized and abrading them down to the proper pitch. Be an awful lot of work.
 
  • #18
hypnagogue
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The sound clip didn't work for me either. You can download an mp3 of "Adagio in C for Glass Armonica" by Mozart http://www.glassarmonica.com/gallery/ [Broken].
 
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  • #19
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Just beautiful! Thanks for the link. I found it very relaxing with great resonance.
 
  • #20
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I guess there are three kinds of people in this world: those who hate the glass armonica, those who love it, and those who can't get any links to play it for them.
 
  • #21
Ivan Seeking
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Zooby, what are you using? Do you have Windows Media Player or Real Player on a computer, or are you still using an Internet box [I forget the right name for those]?

I found that the 19M wav file [from Hyp's link] is much better than the original rm link. Much of the sound is not heard in the original link. The tone was quite good but there is some high pitched squeeking heard that is annoying. On the first pass I almost didn't like it, but after listening to the other link I must say that it does have an enchanting quality. It also sounds like it would be terribly difficult to play; esp as written. Mezmer must have played something much less dynamic.
 
  • #22
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I still have the WebTV. It isn't telling me I can't play it, though. It keeps saying the player is too busy to use. That could well mean I can't play it.
 
  • #23
Ivan Seeking
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I was thinking that this format was incompatible, but
MSN TV supports the following file formats:
Audio: AIFF, AU, WAV, WMA, MP3
Video: ASF, MPEG, WMV
http://www.msntv.com/pc/experience/music_more.asp [Broken]

You might want to contact WEBTV and see if you need an upgrade or have a problem. From what I can see you should be able to play at least the WAV and MP3 file.

Whoops, I just noticed that this is specific to MSN WEBTV? Is this what you have? I had been on "WEBTV" the last time I looked.
 
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  • #25
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glass armonica & lead poisoning

The whole 'glass armonica & lead poisoning' is just a silly urban legend. We now know that you get lead poisoning by inhaling it or ingesting it, not by touching it. You can safely touch RAW lead (but wash your hands before eating). Lead glass is equally safe to touch, if not more so.

>Others might not be as dismissive of the onus of the ill-fated instrument

Why, yes I am when no historical or medical facts support this view.

> Over the course of its history, it has been associated with witchcraft,

by whom?

> insanity

Of the dozen well-known (and thus documented) armonica players of Franklin's day, none went insane.

>and a mysterious disappearance,

I presume you mean the disappearance of Gerhard Finkenbeiner, primarily a scientific glassblower who made armonicas on the side, who took off in his private plane and disappeared. I'm sure he must have had a glass armonica in his back seat!

> and has been postulated as the cause of death of both Beethoven and Mozart.

And how would that be? Beethoven composed one short desultory piece for the armonica--a commission check was involved, no other indication from his letters etc. that he gave a fig about the armonica; Mozart tried out an armonica as a teen, wished he could own one, but never did. Meanwhile, lead poisoning was endemic in Franklin's day (for example, alcoholic beverages were commonly distilled in stills with lead tubing and fittings; pots were made of tin/lead; doctors actually prescribed lead for various ailments).

>...But by the early 1800s, playing an armonica became tantamount to having a death wish. Many of its practitioners either died or went insane.

Um, yes! ALL armonica players died! Like we all will! (Note: most recorded armonica players lived past 70.) As for insane: name just ONE. (Hint: there aren't any.)

> When a baby suffered a fatal epileptic seizure at an armonica concert in 1830, it marked the end of public performances.

There is an anecdote that one child died during one armonica performance (obviously due to the armonica!). Leipzig banned armonicas as a result. That's it.

>...German-born Gerhard Finkenbeiner - researched the associations and solved the mystery.

No he didn't. He SUGGESTED, without citing any sources, that PERHAPS lead glass was the problem--as a 'selling feature' of his 'new-improved' glass armonicas.

> The armonica's bowls were originally made using leaded crystal; those who played it probably absorbed high levels of lead through their fingertips and into their bloodstreams. [continued]

You don't get lead poisoning by touching even RAW lead (much less lead in a very inert substance like glass), you have to INHALE it or INGEST it.

See http://www.glassarmonica.com/armonica/history/lead [Broken]
 
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