Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Day 19 - Robert F. Flemming - Guitar Man

Robert F. Flemming

Robert F. Flemming Jr.

1839 - 1919

Who Was He?

This is the trickiest inventor I have run across thus far. Not because of what he did, but because of the dispute about what he did.

So, let us get into it.

The first facts are not in dispute at all. Robert F. Flemming was born free in Baltimore, MD in 1839.

Like quite a few of the inventors I have profiled over the course of the month, he joined the Civil War effort with the Union. He was a Navy man.

A great deal has been written about his war record and what he was sailing on and what the various ships did.

In 1865, after the war, Flemming settled in Massachusettes. He opened a music store where he manufactured guitars and gave music lessons.

In 1900, he retired from his business and went to live in Melrose, MD. He spent the rest of his life playing music, giving the occasional lesson, and building and playing guitars for fun.

What Did He Invent?

Now we come to it...the controversy. 

Some sites credit Robert Flemming with being the inventor of the modern day acoustic guitar. The claim is that the guitars we use today are patterned after the guitar that Flemming designed and patented.

Now, the guitar has been around for a long, long time. The oldest variant we have was found in a tomb in Egypt. It is 3500 years old and was used by a musician named Har-Mose.
Har-Mose's Lute

Let there be no confusion here. Nobody is suggesting that there was never a guitar in the world, and then Robert Flemming designed and built the first one.

Honestly, if they found a 3500-year-old one buried in a tomb, these things had clearly been around long enough to have people who were aficionados of the music as well as masters at playing the instrument. They don't put any old thing in the tombs of queens. These things are going to the afterlife with them.

So, if Flemming didn't invent the guitar. What the heck did he invent?

He invented a thing called a Euphonica.

As a musician and composer, he felt that this instrument had a more resonant sound than the guitars of his day.

He manufactured and sold these instruments, as well as playing them himself.

I can only assume he taught his students how to play them as well.

He received his patent for this instrument in 1886 in America and 1887 in Canada.

I have spent the last three days reading different opinions about this instrument and the information shakes out as follows:

1 - No, he did not invent the guitar, and that's all that matters. It was an ancient instrument and this does not count as a contribution to anything.

2 - No, he did not invent the guitar, this is crazy.

3 - Of course he invented the modern guitar, but because he is black, nobody wants to give him credit for it.

4 - Modern guitars are based on these designs. Before this invention, the guitars were different. (Nobody explains how)

5 - Elements of the Euphonica are still part of modern guitars.

6 - Flemming is responsible for inventing the blueprint for the modern guitar full stop.

Me? I don't play the guitar. I went on a hunt to see if I could find anybody playing a Euphonica. This became almost impossible as there are some musical groups called Euphonica, songs called Euphonica, and lots of videos of people playing the guitar, but not a single image of the above blueprint thing.

The Euphonica sort of looks like an upright bass, but the bass's history is even nuttier than the guitar.

Either way and who knows and all the same, I give you Robert F. Flemming! Inventor of the Euphonica. 

An instrument that may or may not have been the inspiration for the modern guitar.

Celebrate Black History!

Day 6 - Ernest Everett Just - Biologist, Zoologist, Cell man
Day 7 - Frederick McKinley Jones - The Coolest Man in Modern History
Day 8 - Sarah Goode - A Practical Bed For Small Spaces
Day 9 - William Henry Cling - Did He Invent The Hospital Bed Before Gatch?
Day 10 - Inez Beverly Prosser and Brown V.S. The Board of Education
Day 11 - Jan Ernst Mateliger - Mechanical Engineer/Sole Man
Day 12 - Samuel L. Kountz Jr. - Revolutionized Transplant Surgery
Day 13 - Lewis Howard Latimer - Incandescent Inventor
Day 14 - Marie Van Brittan Brown - Home Security
Day 15 - Norbert Rillieux - Sugar Man
Day 16 - Otis Boykin - He Kept Hearts Beating
Day 17 - Alice H. Parker - Heating It Up!
Day 18 - Lloyd Quarterman - Chemist and Atom Man
Day 19 - Robert F. Flemming Jr. - Guitar Man
Day 20 - Charles S. L. Baker - The Friction Radiator 
Day 21 - Granville T. Woods - The Black Edison
Day 22 - Alfred L. Cralle - Next Time You Have Ice Cream...
Day 23 - Ellen Elgin - Through The Wringer
Day 24 - Dr. Daniel Hale Williams - Holding A Heart In the Palm of His Hands
Day 25 - Benjamin Bradley - Steam Engine Dominance
Day 26 - Elijah McCoy - The Real One
Day 27 - Alexander Miles - Hold The Door, Please!

1 comment:

  1. This is not really accurate. Flemming in his patent referred to guitars -- they already existed. The Euphonica's main difference was the addition of various vellum/parchment heads to act as resonators, like pre-electrical speaker-amplifiers. I.e. he was adding something like a drum or banjo head, internally, to the inside of the guitar. That was not a widely-adopted refinement to the instrument, which already had the shape Flemming uses in the sketches. The Euphonica was kind of a dead end. If anything, the more important improvement -- on which he doesn't dwell in his patent application, since he can't take credit -- is adding a metal clamping nut instead of wooden peg for the tuning head. All in all, it doesn't appear that this was a significant breakthrough in guitars. He seems like a very bright guy and should gt credit for advancing musical education, and for some creative thinking about resonation, but that's it.