The Wheatstone Concertina between 1830 and 1846

The Earliest Concertinas

Evidence from the instruments in the C M Collection indicates that an initial series of 'Roman numeral' labelled concertinas was produced as early as 1829 or 1830, which differs substantially from the series of conventionally numbered instruments produced and sold from about 1836 onwards. Concertinas were used in Wheatstone's lecture of 21 May 1830, so some prototype form of the instrument was in production at that date. At least seventy-two of these 'Roman numeral' instruments were made, and the very earliest of them were of the 'open pearl pallet' style, combining the 24-key fingering system of the symphonium with the exposed pearl pallets and wooden levers of Demian's first accordion. The conventionally-numbered instruments made in the ten years from 1836 exhibit a series of design changes, resulting by 1846 in a more or less 'standard' 48-key English concertina design which was to change little over the next century. A third Wheatstone numbering system was used briefly between 1845 and 1848 on the few 'double concertinas' produced for sale, which feature one of the prototype 'duet' fingering systems patented in Wheatstone's 1844 specification.

Although the internal construction of the 'standard' 48-key English concertina changed little from 1846 onwards, the firm produced a growing range of basses, tenors, miniatures, duet systems and 'new' designs like the Aeola in the late nineteenth century which are reviewed towards the end of this paper.

The Evolution of the Wheatstone Concertina

A study of the very earliest concertinas which still survive from the 1830s reveals much about the gradual evolution of the instrument during this period, and it is clear that Wheatstone's first concertinas were made as early as 1829 or 1830, probably as an adjunct to his work on the symphonium. These early concertinas were probably not made for commercial sale, but mainly as scientific curios which Wheatstone used in his lectures on musical acoustics. The two earliest concertinas in the collection have Roman serial numbers, XXXII and LXXII respectively, and are possibly the oldest known Wheatstone concertinas. No special number punches were needed, since a simple screwdriver or small chisel could be used to mark these Roman numerals into the woodwork.

Wheatstone concertina no. XXXII is a 24-key instrument having an 'English' fingering system virtually identical to Wheatstone's symphonium, the subject of his patent of June 1829. [PLATE 2]

In addition, this concertina has the levers and pallets of the 'action' exposed, and mounted onto the flat surface of the ends of the instrument, in a similar manner to the Demian Akkordion of 1829, and to the early accordions made by Wheatstone at Conduit St around this period (Ref 24). The pallets are pearl, the levers are of ebony, and the whole instrument has numerous features not found on any other concertina. The other 'Roman' numbered instrument retains a large number of these early features, but has its pallets concealed within the conventional pierced fretworked ends used on all subsequent Wheatstone instruments, and in addition has several more 'conventional' features.

The earliest conventionally numbered Wheatstones in the C M Collection have serial numbers 103, 123, 165, 224, 244, 254, 546, 563, 578, 581, 584, 586, and 967, and a detailed analysis of their various features shows the gradual evolution during the 1830s of the 'standard' Wheatstone 48-key English model that was to be in production for well over a century from the mid 1840s. In considering this evolution, the proportion of 'early' to 'late' features in each instrument are compared, and one can consequently chart the rate of change in the concertina's design and pinpoint the key dates in the gradual appearance of the 'standard' or 'modern' concertina.

In each section of a concertina, the following parts of the instrument may be considered as having either early, prototype features, which appear for a short period on the oldest instruments, or late features, being design elements which remain constant on all subsequent instruments, after their initial appearance.

These 'early' and 'late' features are listed and discussed in Appendix 3.

Diagnostic Analysis of the Features of the Earliest Concertinas

An analysis of thirty or so of these diagnostic features, as found in twelve of the earliest Wheatstone concertinas in the C M Collection, is presented in the table below, and the simple ratio of 'early' and 'late' features found in these instruments shows the transition to the 'standard' instrument of the late 1840s most clearly. These 'early' to 'late' ratios are as follows:

It is evident that instrument XXXII is an extremely early production, with predominantly 'early' features, and furthermore with ten features that are found only in this one instrument, such as open pearl pallets, no strap metals, simple woodscrew end bolts, ebony levers, a solid wood action with carved pivots, just twenty-four buttons, stapled reed beds and stamped accidental buttons, all unique details.

Changes were soon made to this design, with appreciable numbers of 'new' features appearing by instrument LXXII, and also between concertinas numbered 123 and 165. The major period of transition towards an instrument of substantially 'later' features appears to have occurred between instruments 254 and 546: by the time 546 was manufactured, only three 'early' features remain in the design: These are: the 'By His Majesty's....' label wording, (which changes to the 'By Her Majesty's.....' variant some time between the sale of instruments 1320 and 1386, both sold in September 1847); the use of square ended reed beds (which also ceases with instrument 1320); and the lack of the circular paper reed pan label, (which appears on all instruments from no. 967, sold in July 1845). After about 1847, then, all of the other 'early' features have finally been superseded, and indeed even these last three are simply small variations in labelling style rather than real 'improvements' to the basic design.

The standard design from 1847 onwards was the rosewood-ended, gilt embossed 48 key 'English' system concertina, usually with scrolled brass inlays and coloured hand tinted bellows papers, retailing at around eight guineas.[PLATE 5]

The only other variation to appear in the pre-1846 concertina is the so-called 'circular fret' pattern, where instead of the conventional ring of pierced fretwork around the keyboards of the instrument, there is an annular ring or opening revealing the pine backing boards beneath the end-plate. This early feature was once thought to pre-date conventionally fretted instruments, and was described as such in later Wheatstone catalogues but is simply a mid-priced style marketed for a period between around 1843 to 1845 (Ref 25). It appears that Joseph Scates copied this 'circular fret' design after he had left Wheatstones' employ in 1845, and the Scates English no. 106 (Item C12) in the C M Collection is also of this design. [PLATE 9]

The Order of Sale of Early Concertinas

It is unwise to rely too heavily on the Sales Ledger dates-of-sale as also indicating dates of manufacture: evidence from Wheatstones' ledgers indicate not only that their concertinas were sold in an extremely random order, but that instruments were constantly being returned, part-exchanged, lent out, hired, and re-sold from Conduit Street. Preliminary results of the computer analysis of the Wheatstone production archives indicate some instruments passing through the shop from six to eight times over a two year period (Ref 26).

It is most unlikely that Charles and William Wheatstone would have manufactured their instruments in such a random numerical order: Not only would this sloppy system have been out of character for the scientifically-minded Charles Wheatstone, but evidence from the 'late/early' ratios of the earliest concertinas indicates that the changes and improvements to the concertina design occur in a strictly numerical sequence. The Conduit Street workshop produced only a very few instruments each week between 1836 and 1845, which were steadily added to the shop's large stocks, and customers could thus at any one visit be offered a wide choice of instrument, ranging from those newly-made to ones made perhaps ten years or more previously, that had been long been 'on the shelf', or had been recently returned by other players. Certainly, the workshop ledgers show that many early instruments, even those numbered in the low 100s, constantly reappear in the sales records for up to twenty years after their first recorded sale. The full computer analysis of the 22,000 concertina sales made between 1830 and 1897 will provide more details of both the rate of sale and the likely dates of manufacture of all Wheatstone concertinas, but this brief initial study does indicate the relatively slow sales of the concertina in its first ten years of retail production.

Wheatstone's 'Double Concertinas'

The principal instrument patented in Wheatstone's seminal concertina specification of 8 February 1844 is the standard 48 key 'English' instrument: all the details of fretwork, lever and pallet construction, reed pan layout and bellows design that had been evolving over the previous eight years were summarized in this patent. In addition, however, a number of other improvements and 'new' instruments are claimed as inventions, amongst them an alternate concertina fingering system that was briefly put into production from about 1845. This system has four rows of buttons in common with the 'English', but each side of the instrument has the notes of the scale arranged in ascending order upwards and across the four rows. The buttons offer a chromatic system which appears to be a forerunner of the Continental Chromatic layout used on later button accordeons, and is also similar to the left hand of Kusserow's Bandoneon. The system reappeared, probably by chance, as a bass layout in Merrett's accordion patent no. 856926 of 1957 (Ref 19).

Since the buttons of Wheatstone concertinas of this period were by now all coloured in the 'Red C, stamped natural, black accidental' format, still mistakenly termed the 'learner' or 'student' model, these '1844 patent' fingering system instruments have a seemingly random distribution of button colours, and have all of their low notes on the left hand and the high notes on the right. This awkward chromatic 'duet' system is thus robbed of the principal asset of the 'English' system, that of having the notes of the scale arranged on alternate ends of the instrument to facilitate rapid playing of scales and arpeggios. Furthermore, it has no finger rests fitted, thus removing a crucial support feature which steadies and positions the hands during playing. Nevertheless, the system appears to have had a small sale to the serious concertina enthusiasts of the 1840s (Ref 28).

None of the 'double concertinas' mentioned in the Wheatstone sales ledgers seem to have been allocated a number. The earliest of the three, numbered '5' only in ink, is from the remnants of the Wheatstone Collection of instruments once housed in the old Wheatstone Laboratory in King's College London, whilst numbers '10' and 58 were in the Wheatstone Factory Collection until the company's absorption by Boosey and Hawkes. All three instruments thus have strong links with Charles Wheatstone and with his concertina-making firm.

The first of these 'doubles' was probably a prototype instrument developed by Wheatstone, and has a partially completed baffle system in a deep central division in the bellows. He had tried to perfect a method of splitting the bellows into two separate compartments so that the larger, deeper left hand reeds would receive less air from a lower pressure head, and thus would not overpower the smaller treble reeds. This instrument also has a circular wooden baffle screwed over the inner face of the bass reed-pan, presumably to further reduce the sound output of the deeper reeds. The second 'double', no. 10, may have been a production model, since it has a conventional 'By His Majesty's....' Wheatstone label. It is a 67-key instrument, the highest number of buttons found on any 'His Majesty's....' period, pre-1847 concertina, and may be similar to the 'double concertina' sold on 30 Sept 1846 which had according to the sales ledgers 'two and a half octaves on the left' and 'three octaves on the right', or about 30 and 36-37 keys on left and right hands respectively. It too has a centrally-placed bellows baffle, but with the refinement of a pair of trap-door air valves, one each side of the inner wooden baffle, which are operated by a brass switch mounted on the outside edge of the central bellows fold that contains the baffle. In spite of this sophisticated arrangement, the use of these baffles would only have had an effect on the relative pressure head in each end of the instrument if the centre of the bellows was held rigidly relative to the ends, otherwise the pressure would be identical in each half. There is evidence in 'double' no. 10 that the central bellows section could be secured to a rigid mount to enable the separate ends of the concertina to be played at independent volumes. By the time that the third double concertina, no. 58, was produced, these experimental bellows baffles had been dropped, and this 'By Her Majesty's...' labelled instrument is of conventional construction, with a conventionally stamped serial number on the pine backing, action, pans, end frames and bellows frames. There is also a scratched number '58' on the inner side of the right hand pine backing, in a script closely similar to the inked numbers on instruments '5' and '10'.

Applying the diagnostic aid of the 'Early/late' feature ratio to these three concertinas gives the ratios 4:26, 4:25, and 2:28 for these instruments and places them squarely in the late 1840s, well in the mainstream of the conventionally constructed concertinas made after the basic design of the instrument was finalized following the 1844 patent. This strange chromatic 'duet' fingering system was also used on some Wheatstone prototype instruments mentioned in the 1844 patent and surviving from the old Wheatstone collection, amongst them the 'Foot-powered, Table-Top concertina organ' (Item C1270), and the unique 'Gliding Reed' concertina (Item C509), which may indicate that Charles Wheatstone had some particular fondness for this unpopular and impractical fingering system.

(19) Brian Hayden, 'Concertina Fingering Systems', Concertina Magazine, nos 18-24 (Bell, NSW, Australia, 1986).

(24) Cyril Demian, Viennese Patent (1829), in The Concertina Museum rchives, Item C1079.

(25) Neil Wayne, 'The Wheatstone Concertina Catalogues and Price Lists', in he Concertina Museum Archives, Items C739-C810 (unpublished).

(26) For instance, the Ledgers show instruments numbered 305 and 308 as old in August 1839 and August 1846 respectively, over seven years part, yet on the other hand, instruments 289, 290, 291 and 292 are sold on the 20th 23rd, 22nd and 9th July 1840, in almost numerical order.

(28) The sales ledgers show occasional sales of 'Double' concertinas throughout 1845, 1846 and 1847, and page 71 of the 1847 ledger (Item C1046) has a separate group of entries concerning 'Double' instruments. Sales of these 'Doubles' appear to have been slow, and the instruments made only to special order. Of the three 'double concertinas' in the collection, only one, Item C1518, has a conventionally stamped serial number, no. 58, on the pine backing. This is the latest of the three, and has the oval paper 'By Her Majesty's....' label that began to be used from September 1847. The other two Items, C510 and C1519, have inked inner labels '5' and '10' beneath the action, which may indicate that these 'doubles' had their own sequence of numbers, and that the earliest ones were simply numbered by hand.

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