The Evolution of the Metronome
By Maxine Carter-Lome
If you ever took music lessons chances are you are familiar with the metronome; the audible task master that helped you to keep time with the music. While digital software has replaced the need for the box with the swinging pendulum, it remains an endearing and “old school” approach to keeping the beat.
Although Johann Maelzel (1772–1838), a German inventor, engineer, and showman, is credited with patenting the metronome as we know it in 1815 (under the title “Instrument/Machine for the Improvement of all Musical Performance”), a kind of metronome was among the inventions of Andalusian polymath Abbas ibn Firnas (810–887 A.D.), an inventor, physician, chemist, engineer, Andalusian musician, and Arabic-language poet. Among his many inventions, Abbas Ibn Firnas is known to have designed a water clock called al-Maqata, devised a means of manufacturing colorless glass, invented various glass planispheres, made corrective lenses (“reading stones”), devised a chain of rings that could be used to simulate the motions of the planets and stars, and developed a process for cutting rock crystal that allowed Spain to cease exporting quartz to Egypt to be cut. He also created an instrument with an inverted pendulum that could be set to a beat at so many times per minute with a loud ticking to keep the tempo – the precursor to the metronome more finely evolved centuries later.
In 1696, Etienne Loulié (1654–1702), a noted French musical theorist, attempted to apply the principles of the pendulum to a metronome. His “machine” was merely an adjustable pendulum with calibrations, but without sound or an escapement to keep it in motion. Plaguing Loulié and his contemporaries was the problem of creating a metronome that would beat slowly enough to keep the tempo of many classical musical pieces, often set at a mere 40 to 60 beats per minute.
In 1814, the German inventor Dietrich Nikolaus Winkel developed a “musical chronometer” capable of keeping fast and slow times, but he failed to patent his device. Through questionable practice (so goes the story), Johann Maelzel appropriated Winkel’s ideas, added a scale, called it a metronome and started manufacturing the metronome under his own name in 1816: “Maelzel’s Metronome.” Maelzel also patented this creation in London, Paris, and Vienna.
Maelzel’s metronome used an escapement (think of the toothed wheel that makes a watch tick) to transfer power from a wound-up spring to a weighted pendulum. Each swing of the pendulum produced an audible tick, and users could adjust a dial to control the tempo of the ticking. An early example of a Maelzel metronome can be found in the Metropolitan Museum’s collection, acquired by The Met in 1979 as part of its acquisition of The Crosby Brown Collection of Musical Instruments.
There are various types of metronomes on the market today. Mechanical Metronomes are what might well be thought of as the “classical” metronome. They usually come in a pyramid shape and use an inverted pendulum to keep the beat. Electronic, or Quartz, Metronomes came onto the scene as the more precise way of determining time. Quartz metronomes make use of quartz crystal, much like a watch does. A Digital Metronome is just a piece of software. It does, however, often provide additional features, particularly for recording artists. Although digital metronome software has replaced the need for the classic mechanical metronome, the beat goes on for collectors who respect the engineering and craftsmanship of the box on top of the piano.
Philippe-Nicolas Paquet was born in 1823 into a family of watch makers and followed the family tradition by entering the time-keeping industry. He settled in Paris, working for the Maelzel Metronome company, and after the death of Johann Nepomuk Mäelzel in 1838, eventually took over the running of the factory. Paquet went on to establish a new small machine tools plant and metronome producing plant in Beaumont Sur Oise in 1867, winning many awards at International exhibitions. The factory in Beaumont remained in production until 1983. The two dates shown on the majority of Paquet – Maelzel metronome trade labels are 1815-1846, the former being the year the patent was first approved by Maelzel, and 1846 being the year that Paquet took over the company. Paquet is by far the most common maker of antique metronome. They produced the metronomes in large numbers under their own brand, and then licensed through many distributors.
Robert Cocks founded his music publishing firm in 1823 and went on to become one of the largest musical publishing and accessory manufacturing companies of the era. Robert Cocks metronomes were manufactured in London until 1898. The Cocks firm used two distinct door emblems on their metronomes; the earlier badge is believed to have been used prior to 1868 and reads “Robert Cocks & Co 6 New Burlington St London – Metronome De Maelzel.” After bringing his sons into the business, the firm updated its plaque to read “Best English Make London – Metronome De Maelzel” until production ended in 1898.
Established in 1885 by Gustav Wittner (another watchmaker) in Germany, the Wittner company quickly flourished to become the largest manufacturer of modern day metronomes. The design, and shape of the pyramid style metronome have changed little over the course of three generations, although new modern patterns and designs prove to be hugely successful. In 1921, Gustav’s son Rudolf took over the company at the age of 22 to raise the bar from his father’s small hand-to-mouth metronome business. Rudolf moved the company closer to the Black Forest – the source of the wood used in their metronomes, cutting costs for raw materials and giving them access to the best available wood. Wittner metronomes are made under the leadership of Rudolf’s son, Horst.
Seth Thomas (Conn., 1785-1859) founded his clock company in 1813 and over the next 45 years built an empire and pioneered mass production of primarily clocks from his factory in Plymouth Hollow, Connecticut. He died in 1859 and the business fell to his sons, Seth Jr., Edward, and Aaron. The Seth Thomas company, already hugely successful in the manufacture of clocks, incorporated metronomes into their catalogue, initially purchasing them from Philippe-Nicolas Paquet and re-branded them with the Seth Thomas name and logo. The company went on to manufacture its own in-house metronome in 1887, which continued until 1984.
While these are some of the better known brands and makers to know, there were other, smaller antique metronome manufacturers such as E. Paillard & Cie (Switzerland), Barnett Samuel (London UK), and Theodor Presser (United States) on the market. These firms in most cases utilized products from Maelzel or Paquet and re-branded them, some applying small patented improvements to the mechanisms, design, or mechanics in order to create uniqueness and distinction in the marketplace. The quality of some of these smaller manufacturers’ metronomes is often superior to the larger mass produced pieces. Others simply purchased units from larger manufacturers and added their own label and brand.
In 1909, White and Hunter received a patent for a pocket metronome having a hand which turned complete revolutions, one revolution to a beat. Its speed was adjustable between 40 and 208 revolutions per minute. “The object of our invention,” they wrote in their patent application “is to provide a new and improved metronome which is simple in construction, compact, composed of few parts, not apt to get out of order and can readily be adjusted to conform in its beats with the beats of a conductor or the time of a piece of music being performed and when so adjusted indicates the time at which the musical piece is performed, on a scale commonly known as the Maelzel metronome scale, that is, so many beats per minute.”
With the advent of controlled alternating current (AC), clocks could operate with greater accuracy by using electricity for a steady influx of energy, which contributed to the invention of the Franz electric metronome (1938). In this metronome a synchronous motor, like those used in electric clocks, drives a tempo-beating hammer through a mechanical reduction which is adjustable from 40 to 208. These electro-mechanical units were produced through June, 1994.
Today the function of the metronome has been replaced by software, websites, apps for iPods and other portable MP3 players, “wearables” with built in software, and smartphones, offering musicians and composers a range of different sounds, programmable samples, and endless possibilities. Yet, there is still a market for the classical metronome among old-school musicians and collectors, who recognize the craftsmanship and engineering that has made the metronome an object and technology that continues to keep pace with time.
Sources: antique-metronomes.com, franzmfg.com, the blog “The Theory of the Music Movement,” Smithsonian.com