The Harp-O-Chord


On June 27, 1899, Mr. Carl E. Brown, of Columbus, Ohio, was granted a patent, innocuously titled "Musical Instrument." But this was a musical instrument of distinctive character, not to be equalled for many years to come. His introduction pulled no punches...

The primary object of my invention is to provide a musical instrument that may be played upon by persons who cannot through circumstances devote the time and patience necessary to acquire sufficient technical skill to play with abandon upon instruments of the nobler sort.

The drawings show a fairly simple box, with three bass strings and three groups of three strings arranged in chords. The remaining feature is a slot into which a harmonica may be inserted.

"Wonderful Volume and Vibratory Effect," trumpeted the sales literature, which includes a photo (above) of a youthful-looking Mr. Brown holding the instrument. "Twice as Loud as Both Mandolin and Guitar." "One Person Can Furnish Music for Parties, Dances, Stage Entertainments, Etc."

Entertainments, maybe... because it certainly provokes a chuckle watching someone holding this box against their face and blowing/picking a tune. Admittedly the box provides a resonance chamber for the harmonica, but it ends up sounding like, well, a harmonica being played in a box. The soundbox itself is rather interesting, though, as its aspect ratio is quite different from most zithers, being only 16 inches long but 3" deep at its deepest point. In addition, the soundboards are extremely light, a bit under 1/8" thick.

[Oh, that "for many years to come" - amazingly enough, in the 50's or 60's, someone revived the concept. The "Hill Country Harp" has a swiveling harmonica holder (though it doesn't blow into the sound box), a shape that's roughly like the Harp-O-Chord, and 4 individual bass strings. But they were even more, uh, innovative... Borrowing from an Indian instrument called a bulbul tarang, they laid out a set of 4 more strings tuned to the tonic chord. Under one end lies a set of 3 partial bridges, with spring-loaded levers above them. When pressed, the lever "frets" the strings to produce a chord which corresponds to one of the other bass notes. This one takes about 2 1/2 hands to play...]

Fortunately his imagination had not run its course, because on Oct. 2, 1900, he patented another "Musical Instrument" which became the delightful Harp-Zither. No longer dismissing the instrument as not being one of the "nobler sort," he clearly had some specific goals in mind. Taking the by-then common concept of the guitar-zither, he made its form more compact by creating a dual-height bridge at the lower end, allowing the melody strings and the chord strings to be anchored at the same place. In addition, he wanted to make it possible to play while strolling, so he provided the post and open harp-like space so that it could be easily carried and played by the carrying hand from behind the instrument. The patent drawing shows the production instrument in every detail including a very under-sized hand holding the post with finger extended.

This is the instrument which, forlorn and bereft of paint and even some body parts, was restored by Margaret MacArthur's husband in the early 1960s, and played by her to the enchantment of all who hear it. At the time there wasn't much knowledge of the Harp-O-Chord company, and her concerts and recordings led to the instrument being popularly called "the MacArthur Harp." Indeed, it was sufficently enchanting that at least one luthier built some exact reproductions. Lark in the Morning lists this reproduction instrument in their catalog.

She has written a book, with an accompanying cassette, entitled "How to play the MacArthur Harp and all numerical harp-zithers." It gives a bit of background and tuning and playing instructions. She rests the end of the instrument on her lap, playing melody with her right-hand fingers. The fingers of her left hand rest on the top curve, and they slide up and down to allow her thumb to play notes in the chord section from the other side, thereby taking proper advantage of Mr. Brown's design.

Of course, I lay mine down flat, like I play all the other ones, so I don't get that advantage. The inventor (perhaps grudgingly) admitted in half of one sentence that "it may be played while lying upon a table," and the actual instrument has the typical brass feet for resting on and transferring sound into a table. As this instrument has a rather small soundbox, that sort of mechanical amplification can definitely be helpful.

Here's a picture of mine, and you can listen to it in RealAudio (229K).

 The Harp-O-Chord Co. was busy in the first years of the century, buying lots in Columbus in 1903 and putting up a factory. They began production and sale of another instrument, the "Little Joe", a 4-string, necked instrument that looked vaguely like a banjo. But it had a harmonica mounted in its head, and it only had 3 frets. It appears that it was tuned to an open chord, and that the frets were positioned to be used simply to bar all 4 strings to produce additional chords without fingering.

Some other individuals known to be associated with the Harp-O-Chord Co. were: Charles H. Lindenberg, president in 1900-1903, who also operated another business in Columbus; John Cashatt, treasurer in 1903, who was also involved with several other businesses, and William W. McCallip, who was a principal in a successful wire fence business in Columbus, and who had some other patents for harmonica/stringed instruments.

But the Harp-O-Chord Co. disappears from the Columbus City directories, by name at least, by about 1906. Carl Brown, who had been previously listed as manager there, continued to be listed as "manager", but the directory didn't say what he was managing. By 1911, he was listed as being involved in the gas fixture business, and it appears that the time of Harp-O-Chord and the zither was past.

Oddly enough, the Little Joe survived, in some form. It reappeared in the Sears catalog in the years 1909-1919, and was seen in catalogs even later than that. Did Sears simply buy out all the unsold stock when the company closed? Did some other concern take on the manufacturing of the Little Joe? There's always more to discover...

Some final biographical information about Carl Brown - He was born in Milan, Ohio on March 15, 1866 to parents Frederick E. Brown and Rose Brown. By about 1894, Frederick had died and Carl and his mother and brother Bert moved to Columbus. Rose Brown appears to have died in the early 1920s, and by 1923, Carl was married to Mary E. Brown. He appears to have operated several businesses in the 1920s, including the US Manufacturing Co., oil burners, the Interstate Signal Mfg. Co., auto accessories, and the E-Z Remitter Co. These last two were presumably to market his inventions of an automobile turn signal and a special envelope for mailing coins.

He spent the rest of his life in Columbus and continued patenting new ideas. In addition to the ones mentioned, they included a device strapped around the neck to wake up drowsy drivers, and a foot-pumped shower to be used while bathing in a washtub. He passed away in 1952, and until nearly his last year, his occupation was listed in the city directory as simply, "inventor."

Here's a small gallery of Harp-O-Chord & related instruments.
 the original Harp-O-Chord             the Harp-Zither               a reproduction Harp-Zither                     the Harp of David

Drop me a line.

Go back to the Guitar-Zither Clearinghouse, or home.

This page was last updated with Mozilla Composer 3 Apr 05.

Here's HarpOChord, in case someone searched for it with that spelling.