About a month ago my husband and I watched Mesmer and became completely infatuated with a musical instrument that appeared in the film. It was composed of nested cylinders of glass which were rotated on a spindle, and at the touch of human hands, vibrated in much the same way that a wine glass vibrates when you run a wet finger along the rim.
At the time, we didn't realize that this instrument is called the Glass Armonica, and it was invented by Ben Franklin in 1761. He had heard another artist playing the wine glasses, and he decided that he could devise an instrument that would have the same qualities but with greater functionality.
The instrument became very popular in its day, and it's history is nearly as interesting as the sound that it creates. Several artists, including Mozart and Beethoven, composed pieces for the Glass Armonica, and Marie Antoinette took Armonica lessons, however, the instrument began to lose its popularity when rumours began to spread inferring that the instrument was a cause of insanity.
According to the German musicologist, Friedrich Rochlitz:
There may be various reasons for the scarcity of armonica players, principally the almost universally shared opinion that playing it is damaging to the health, that it excessively stimulates the nerves, plunges the player into a nagging depression and hence into a dark and melancholy mood, that it is an apt method for slow self-annihilation… Many (physicians with whom I have discussed this matter) say the sharp penetrating tone runs like a spark through the entire nervous system, forcibly shaking it up and causing nervous disorders.
As these types of rumours continued to spread, the popularity of the instrument waned, but it's still possible to purchase one, and there are still composers such as William Zeitler who claim the Glass Armonica as their primary instrument. I definitely recommend checking out Mr. Zeitler's site, as it's filled with interesting historical information about the instrument.
Also, if you'd like to hear the glass armonica, there's an article at PBS.org that has a soundclip.
There's also an interactive “virtual armonica” that you can play.