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1903 concertina 2 ;

The Concertina: Celebrating Sir Charles Wheatstone's Invention at King's

February 6 2022 is World Concertina Day, celebrating one of King's College London's enduring but lesser-known contributions to human civilization, the concertina. To mark the occasion, Michael Hebbert, a Lecturer at LSE in 1979-95 and a member of the former Joint School of Geography who taught many King's students, considers the history of the instrument, and it's invention at King's.

The hexagonal squeezebox was invented, patented and manufactured by Sir Charles Wheatstone, Professor of Experimental Philosophy at King's. Wheatstone is remembered chiefly for his contributions to electrical engineering, telegraphy, optics, acoustics and cryptography, but his Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry also credits him with 'one of the few original British musical instrument designs'. Concertina manufacture became the staple of the family business at 20 Conduit Street W1, which he ran with his brother William from 1823. The Wheatstone brand survives to this day, manufactured from a workshop in Stowmarket, Suffolk.

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Cut-away image of end-plate, action box and reed pan on an English concertina. ©️ Dave Elliott

Concertinas were scientifically optimised instruments. Their near-circular shape allowed a highly efficient distribution of bellow-activated brass reeds. The fingering system allocated alternate notes to right and left hands, permiting rapid runs. In accordance with the latest German acoustical theory octaves were broken into fourteen enharmonic tones instead of the usual twelve : G# played as a separate note from Ab, D# and Eb. When Wheatstone concertinas were exhibited at the Crystal Palace in the Great Exhibition of 1851, Hector Berlioz picked them out as having true musical potential, unlike all but one of the other 'abortive and useless' experiments on display (the other exception being the saxaphone) As a composer, however, he was concerned that the instrument's range had not been standardised: some went higher, some went lower, depending on the manufacturer's whim.

A bigger issue was that rival manufacturers of the new instrument patented their own arrangement of notes and buttons. Wheatstone himself marketed two distinct systems, the first ('English') allocating notes on stave lines to the right hand and spaces to the left, the second ('Double' or 'Duet') giving all low notes to the left hand and high to the right. Other manufacturers applied the suck-blow principle of the mouth organ to offer cheaper diatonic 'Anglo-German' or 'Anglo' instruments where the notes played by buttons would change with each shift of the bellows.

Fresh entrants to the market brought their own improvements. John Hill MacCann patented a different ‘Duet’ arrangement in 1898; the Liverpool musical instrument manufacturers Crane & Sons developed their own system, mass-produced for the Salvation Army under the 'Triumph' brand; a fourth Duet system closer to the Anglo was devised by Charles Jeffries and produced from the 1890s; the Wheatstone Company returned to the fray with a fresh re-arrangement in 1950; and Brian Hayden patented yet another Duet system (patent GB2131592) as recently as 1986. The consequence is that apparently identical squeezeboxes are playable only if your fingers happen to be trained on their particular pattern. Any student of the concertina has to choose between ten incompatible operating systems.

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Michael Hebbert and singer Andrew Frank at Musical Traditions Club, Fitzrovia, December 2019

Wheatstone worked on his invention in his King's from 1829, launched it publicly in 1835, copyrighting the design under patent 10,041 in 1844. It was taken up by the guitar virtuoso Giulio Regondi (1827-1872) who made it fashionable through his dazzling performances of arrangements and specially commissioned concert pieces. But as the number of makers and systems multiplied, the concertina became synonomous with cheap, popular music-making. The New York musicologist Allan W. Atlas has contrasted the concertina of the erudite but dastardly Count Fosco in Wilkie Collins's 'The Woman in White' of 1860 with its frequent appearance in the writings of George Gissing, just thirty years later, as a symbol of low-life. To the disgust of some readers the editor of the 'Musical Times' classified it in 1891 with the mouth-organ, mirliton and kazoo.

As Wheatstone's sophisticated invention became widely accessible it supported an extraordinary variety of music-making. The Mormons played hymns on concertinas in their westward migration to Utah, sailors played shanties on the foredeck of sailing ships, South African Boers and Zulus both took the squeezebox into their different musics, so did English Morris dancers, Salvation Army bands­­­­­ and the virtuosos of Irish folk tradition.

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Two centuries on, this King's invention still does credit to the genius of Professor Sir Charles Wheatstone with a far wider diversity of musical styles than he can ever have imagined.

All these strands and many more are being celebrated by the International Concertina Assocation in a grand online concert on Sunday 6 February 2022.

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