If they were so clever, why weren’t they rich? By Robert Bigio
Why do we play the flutes we play? Most of us use a standard Boehm flute with a closed G sharp. A century and a half after this flute was invented, is it still the best possible flute? As flute inventions go, none has been more successful than Boehm’s 1847 design. Figure 1 is a picture of Boehm’s flute number 1, delivered to Giulio Briccialdi in 1847 and now in the Dayton C. Miller Collection in Washington. Apart from the open G sharp, any flute player today could play on this instrument. The fingering system is just as we have it today; the bore is 19.0mm, just as we have it today; the headjoint tapers just as it does today; and the holes are large and evenly spaced—just as we have them today. Within a decade of the introduction of this flute, Louis Lot had developed the design of the keys (and changed to a closed G sharp) to look like Figure 2. Today, a dozen flute makers will supply a flute that looks virtually identical to this, and, thousands and thousands of flute players have instruments just like it. Boehm’s fingering and acoustical design along with Louis Lot’s aesthetic design produced the flute that we continue to use, a century and a half after it was introduced. We’ve made a few changes over the years (most of us prefer rectangular embouchures like Boehm’s to the oval ones Louis Lot used in the early years; the depth of the embouchure has changed; and technological advances have given us more reliable materials and manufacturing methods), but for the most part, we play instruments essentially indistinguishable from this. Almost any flute player today could play quite happily on this Louis Lot flute, and anyone able to play an open G sharp would be comfortable with the Boehm. This century-and-a-half-old design still does almost everything we want it to do. As a piece of design, this is quite remarkable. Millions of Boehm flutes have been made, and today if you say the word ‘flute,’ most people will have a vision of something like this. The reason the flute has not changed since Boehm’s day is a simple one: this flute is good enough to do just about everything we need to do. It might not be the best possible design (I will be mentioning a fingering system that was applied to Boehm’s acoustical design that I think is better), but it’s good enough. An inventor of a new flute today would have a hard job selling it because the Boehm already does the job for most of us. The Boehm flute is, quite simply, good enough. At the opposite end of the scale of design success is an instrument that was the lifetime’s work of a British man named T.W. Moore, who patented it in 1950. This chap evidently felt that for those moments in an orchestra when a pesky composer doesn’t give you enough time to change instruments, what you really need is a flute with a built-in piccolo. (See Figure 3.) Moore’s instrument is a standard Boehm flute that shares an embouchure with a piccolo fitted upside down to the end of the headjoint. Some rods transmit motion from the flute end of the instrument to the piccolo on the top, and a lever slides the stopper from one side of the embouchure to the other, to blow either the flute or the piccolo. Moore’s patent specification includes drawings that illustrate this clearly. This instrument acts as a perfect example of what an inventor should not do. First, it is what that wonderful comedian Victor Borge referred to as a cure for which there is no disease: in most cases we don’t have much trouble switching between a flute and a piccolo. Second, the invention produces more problems than it solves. Because of the rods and levers, it doesn’t come apart, so instead of two small instruments that will fit easily into a briefcase, the owner must carry around something about the size and shape of a twelve-bore shotgun. Third, it’s very heavy. Fourth, you can’t adjust the pitch by pulling out the headjoint. Finally, and most important, it doesn’t work. So, we have here an invention that attempts to solve a problem that doesn’t exist, that causes new problems of its own, and that, rather crucially, doesn’t work anyway. I have never heard of anyone other than Moore playing on one of these instruments, and to the best of my knowledge, only one was made. The contrast with Boehm’s flute is as stark as can be: One has been made and sold in the millions, and the other has become an object of curiosity and a fine illustration of Thomas Edison’s joke: ‘I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.’ Edison’s most famous comment was ‘Genius is one per cent inspiration and 99 per cent perspiration.’ Edison was a clever fellow, and as an inventor he was hugely successful. In addition to inventing sound recording (Figure 4 is a picture of Edison with an early version of his recording machine), his light bulb has transformed our lives. Edison didn’t invent the light bulb, or at least he didn’t invent it first; Joseph Swan in England had done that a few years before. The trouble is that a light bulb is of no use if you don’t have an electricity supply, and the inventor of a light bulb is only going to make money out of his invention if he manages to get an electrical cable into lots of people’s houses. That’s where the perspiration comes in: huge effort has to be expended to persuade governments and landowners to allow power stations to be built and power lines to be installed, and a vast campaign of marketing has to be put in place to persuade homeowners to sign up to the service. And all that involves a huge programme of investment, which means persuading lots of investors that it’s a good idea in the first place. Edison had another saying: ‘Anything that won’t sell, I don’t want to invent. Its sale is proof of utility, and utility is success.’ For artists—and I think most musicians think they’re artists—this may be a shocking statement, but it shows the difference between artists and manufacturers: artists might well continue to paint, write, compose, or whatever, even if no one buys their work, but if manufacturers make things that don’t sell, they stop making them. (There is, of course, the somewhat cynical view expressed by the great Broadway director, Harold Clurman: ‘Artists are dreamers, and what they dream about is money.’) It may seem harsh, but the simple fact is that good ideas sell and bad ideas don’t. So it is with flute inventions. If we see lots of a certain type of flute, it’s because the maker sold lots of them, which means lots of people liked it, which probably means it was a good design. The Boehm flute is the best example of this. If there is only one of a certain type of flute, such as the Moore flute with the built-in piccolo, it’s a safe bet it was a lousy idea. Very few commercially unsuccessful flute inventions were actually a good idea. If they were a good idea, someone would have copied them. Even if the idea was patented and the inventor failed to exploit the patent, someone would have taken up the idea when the patent expired. Inventing something clever is only a tiny part of the business. Once you have come up with your great idea, you have to manufacture the thing and then market it. That’s the hard part. That’s the perspiration Edison was talking about. If you invent a flute, you might have to persuade a manufacturer to make it for you (and that won’t be easy—every flute maker regularly has someone coming around with a supposedly great idea, which in fact is usually rather less than great). Or, you might choose to set up as a manufacturer yourself. If you do that, you have to engage in a series of activities that are truly perspiration rather than inspiration: you have to find premises, hire and train staff, buy and maintain equipment, find sources of materials, keep the books and, most important, persuade customers to buy your invention; and then, of course, you have to maintain the instruments when they come back for repair. If you want to make an impact on the market, you have to make plenty of your flutes available for people to buy, which means you have to have some capital, which means you either have to be rich in the first place or you have to persuade some investors that you have a marketable idea. The invention, the inspiration, may well be the easy part. Many inventors, it seems, are not suited to the more prosaic activities of business. Boehm, for example, was strong on the invention, but rather weak on the rest of the process: his 1832 conical flute (Figure 5) was not even patented; his first 1847 flute appears to have been made by Boehm himself without the help of the workers he had previously employed and is (dare I say this?) not an impressive piece of craftsmanship; and when it came to producing enough instruments to make an impact on the market, Boehm insisted on quality rather than quantity.   As an example, in 1876, a year for which we have records of the output of Rudall Carte in London, Louis Lot in Paris, and Boehm & Mendler in Munich, Rudall Carte and Louis Lot produced hundreds of instruments each, but Boehm & Mendler made just twenty-six If anyone is looking for an explanation of why the Boehm flute was slow in catching on in Germany, this is one pretty good reason: Boehm simply didn’t produce enough of the things, and by his own admission refused to produce more. Nor can it be said that Boehm & Mendler’s flutes were of significantly higher quality than those of Rudall Carte or Louis Lot. Boehm, I believe, was simply not a very good businessman. London was a thriving place in the middle of the nineteenth century. It was the biggest and richest city in the world, and there were thousands and thousands of wealthy amateur flute players willing to pay large sums of money for their flutes. It was also possible to have someone make almost anything you wanted. From a point where Farringdon Station now stands, in Clerkenwell in the City of London, you would have been within a few hundred paces of countless clockmakers, watchmakers, jewellers, silversmiths, engravers, engine decorators, scientific instrument makers, microscope makers, telescope makers, printers, wood turners, and any number of other tradesmen. For these tradesmen, there must have been a pyramid of suppliers of materials, equipment, and tools, along with blacksmiths, engineers and mechanics. If there was a printing industry, there must have been a parallel industry of machinists making and maintaining printing presses and these machinists could have made any machine for any trade. By the middle of the century most of the larger presses would have been powered by steam, so there must have been people around who could build and maintain steam engines. Basically, if you wanted something made, you could have it made, and have it made quite easily. There were even people who supplied flute keys, and some who supplied complete flutes ready to be stamped with your own name. If you were an inventor, all you needed was an idea and some capital. There were about a dozen newly invented flutes in the middle of the nineteenth century, most of them from London. This is a huge amount of inventive activity, and it would only have happened if the inventors (and the people who made the flutes) thought there was a chance to sell the things. Quite a few of many of these new models were sold, which suggests one inescapable fact: many players by then considered the old eight-keyed flute inadequate. The old flute had ceased to be good enough, so someone invented something better. In fact, lots of people invented something better. The Boehm flute won in the end, but it was not the easiest of victories. There is no room here to describe all the flutes of the middle of the nineteenth century, but this is a brief list of the most notable of the makers or inventors: Theobald Boehm; Cornelius Ward (who wins my vote for the most exquisite craftsmanship in the history of flute making, even though his invention was quite mad and never caught on); Abel Siccama; William Card; Richard Carte (whose firm, which became Rudall, Rose & Carte in the 1850s, made Boehm flutes as well as Carte’s own 1851 Patent flute and Carte’s ‘Old System’ flute, all in wood and silver, conical or cylindrical, and later his 1867 Patent flute); Jean-Louis Tulou (whose ‘Flûte perfectionnée’ was an attempt to counter the Boehm flute); John Clinton; Giulio Briccialdi; Robert Sydney Pratten; Richard Shepherd Rockstro; John Radcliff; and any number of amateur players who persuaded Rudall, Rose & Carte (and later Rudall Carte) to indulge them by producing their increasingly bizarre inventions. All but Boehm and Tulou first produced their flutes in London. Not many of these inventors became rich. If you want to be a success in business, you have only to find out what your customers want to buy and then sell it to them. Those who did that, like Richard Carte, became rich. The brilliant Cornelius Ward didn’t do that, and is said to have died in a workhouse. Of all the inventions, only Carte’s 1867 Patent rivalled the standard Boehm flute for popularity, and then only in Britain. The 1867 flute is a Boehm flute in that it has Boehm’s bore and follows his idea of large, evenly spaced toneholes and all open-standing keys. It just has a different fingering system, one that I think is the best yet devised. It removes most of the difficulties of the Boehm flute, such as moving from E to F sharp (in a sharp key you simply use the F sharp right hand button), and using the extra B flat key with the right third finger is much easier than using the little lever we often ignore on a Boehm. You can still play F sharp with the ring finger as on a standard Boehm, too. The all-fingers-off D is very useful in some quick passages, and the fingering is, I think, rather easier in the upper register. This is a fantastic system, and it was far from rare: Rudall Carte sold as many of these as they sold standard Boehms until the 1880s. Many leading players used 1867 flutes, including W.L. Barrett, the professor of flute at the Royal College of Music at the end of the nineteenth century, and the extraordinary Eli Hudson, most famous for his spectacular piccolo recordings. The 1867 was still in professional use as recently as the 1980s. Figure 7 is a picture of William Bartlett, first flute in the one of the BBC orchestras. You wouldn’t have known Bill wasn’t playing a Boehm flute, because in every regard he was; his flute just has a different fingering system. In some ways the 1867 is more Boehm than the Boehm: it’s possible to play almost any note without closing a single hole below that note, unlike on the Boehm, where there is some loss of venting in playing B flat and F sharp. So why does good enough beat best? I have said that I think the 1867 is better than the standard Boehm, so why don’t we all play it? The fact is that the standard Boehm flute that most of us play today (with a closed G sharp) is good enough to do everything we need to do. We would probably all be better off playing an open G sharp flute, which has advantages of every sort: it’s easier to make, it’s acoustically better and it’s easier to finger, but the disadvantages of switching far outweigh any advantages. Anyone making the switch today would have far fewer instruments to choose from and would have a lot of trouble selling his or her flute later. Those are good enough reasons not to bother when the advantages are really rather slim. The closed G sharp flute is good enough. So it was with the 1867. It might have been better than the standard Boehm, but there were lots of standard Boehms for sale, and only Rudall Carte made 1867s. Rudall Carte flutes were rather expensive. Beginners generally chose cheaper instruments, which would probably have been standard Boehms, and stuck with them. The Boehm flute will be with us until we decide that it is no longer good enough. When that happens we can expect a flood of new inventions. Until then, good enough beats best. This article first appeared in the Summer 2008 edition of Flutist Quarterly. __________ Many of the photographs in this article, and hundreds more besides, many be found in my book Rudall, Rose & Carte: The Art of the Flute in Britain. Please follow this link.
Figure 1: Boehm’s cylindrical flute number 1. Dayton C. Miller Collection, Library of Congress, Washington. 635mm. Photograph by Robert Bigio. Figure 3: Flute with built-in piccolo by T.W. Moore. Bate Collection, University of Oxford. 790mm. Photograph by Robert Bigio. Figure 2: Louis Lot silver flute serial number 560. Private collection. 686mm. Photograph by Robert Bigio. Figure 4: Thomas Edison with his sound recording machine. Figure 5: Conical Boehm flute (1832 model). Private collection. 673mm. Photograph by Robert Bigio. Robert Bigio Flute maker www.bigio.com
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