The Wheatstone Concertina from 1850 Onwards

These studies on the very earliest Wheatstone concertinas indicate that the evolution of the basic design of his 48-key 'English' system model had been completed by around 1842 to 1843, when it was finally fully described and patented in Wheatstone's 1844 specification. The layout of buttons, the arrangement of reeds and reed pans, levers and pallets, and the method of construction of the ends, action boards, pans and bellows henceforth changed little over the next century. The Wheatstone factory production ledgers record instruments with solid gold buttons and fittings being produced to special order at seventy guineas, and in 1848, the only known ivory-ended instrument was produced, again to special order. [PLATE 6]

However, the Wheatstone firm and their many imitators and competitors soon began to produce variants and 'improvements' to the basic 'English' design, to say nothing of dozens of new systems and compasses of anglo and duet concertinas, examples of most of which are now in the Concertina Museum Collection.

The survey below lists the many changes to Wheatstone's initial design and indicates how the combined influences of both fashion and genuine technological improvement led to the many changes in the original design of the concertina.

Changes in the Reeds

One of the last 'early' design features to be finally superseded in the development of the basic English concertina was the use of square-ended reed beds, which ceased to be used from instrument no 1775, sold in February 1848. These early, hand filed reed beds resembled those of the first Demian style of akkordion and were each individually fitted into hand routed slots in the reed pans. By the late 1840s, a measure of mass production was already being introduced at Wheatstones under the management and direction of the Swiss master machinist Louis Lachenal, whose mass-production methods eventually reached a great degree of sophistication in his own factory from the late 1850s.

The round-ended reed beds in use after 1848 were stamped out using specially made fly press dies, and moreover were produced in just a few standardized sizes. From about 1845, the reed pans of all Wheatstone concertinas had a circular paper pan-label affixed to their inner face which has all of the note names and 'note frame' or reed bed sizes printed upon it to guide the outworkers as to which size of bed was to be used for each note.

Brass reed tongues became standard from about 1848, supplanting the use of nickel-silver, though various formulations of brass and bronze had been used in earlier concertinas, with even gold and silver reeds used in Wheatstone's symphoniums. Steel 'vibrators', as reed tongues were called, were first introduced by Wheatstones at the request of concert virtuosi such as Blagrove and Regondi: such reeds kept their pitch well and produced much more volume, and were to become generally available as an option on all Wheatstone instruments from the early 1860s onwards.

Upon the introduction of their 'Aeola' in 1898, Wheatstones devised a new 'long scale' format of reed bed, of slimmer, narrower form and with a proportionately longer reed tongue, which was considered to offer improved voicing, tone and attack.

It was for their baritone, bass and contrabass concertinas that Wheatstones produced their largest reeds, with thick rectangular brass reed beds usually screwed directly to the flat surface of the reed pans or to the underside of the action board. In many cases, these large reeds were affixed to specially constructed organ pipe-like chambers, to enhance or modify the tone produced. Some of these large reeds were produced for Wheatstones by French reed makers, who also supplied the English harmonium and reed organ trade.

For their 'clarionet' concertinas, whose tone was intended to resemble that of the clarinet or oboe, Wheatstone's used steel reed tongues of a markedly fish-tail shape, which when combined with harmonically tuned reed chambers, did indeed have a marked effect in the tone of these instruments.

During the early 1920s, Wheatstones briefly experimented with aluminium as a material for both the reeds beds and for the fretted end plates of their larger concertinas. This innovation undoubtedly lightened the instrument, but this very lightness in turn affected the tone produced by reducing the mass and solidity of the reed pan. Furthermore, the aluminium used was rather too pure, and was quickly subject to spots of oxidation which impeded the critical gap between reed tongue and bed. Lachenal & Co also had a brief flirtation with aluminium reed beds and experienced similar problems.

A final innovation in reed manufacture, originally developed by Lachenal, was still in use when the Wheatstone division of Boosey and Hawkes was finally closed in the 1970s. This was the automated filing and profiling or reed tongue steel using specially profiled grinding wheels applied when the reed steel was still in long strip form. This saved many hours of filing, handwork and voicing, and produced reed tongues almost ready to fit into their frames with a minimum of fine tuning.

The Reed Pan

On the very earliest Wheatstone concertinas, this complex piece of chambered woodwork that holds all the reeds has no central 'pan-hole', and its wooden reed chamber dividers are screwed directly on to the pan-board. On the early 'Roman numeral' Wheatstone no. XXXII, the reeds themselves are stapled directly onto the pan-boards, but this appears to be a unique feature, and all subsequent Wheatstone concertinas have their reed beds slotted into routed grooves within the pan-board itself.

From about 1842, the reed pan was made with a central hole, to assist in its easy removal from the bellows frame, and the circular paper reed pan label was introduced from July 1845. Initially, this applied paper label used Roman numerals to indicate the size of reed frames to be used for each note, in an arrangement reminiscent of the numbering used on the earliest 'Roman numeral' concertinas. The use of these pan labels indicates the growing use of outworkers to fit, tune and insert the reeds, since the craftsmen would be able to work faster given this fitting guide to note sizes and pitches. Initially, only Wheatstones used these circular pan labels, though their use was later adopted by Lachenal & Co. and also by Joseph Scates. When Scates began to import concertinas from Louis Lachenal into his Dublin premises, he applied his own circular pan labels over the top of Lachenal's labels so as to conceal the origin of the instrument!

During the 1850s the reed pan began to increase in sophistication: the chambers of the small reeds were made shallower, whilst those of the bass reeds were made deeper, giving the pan a wedge shaped profile. Also, the pan-hole was placed off-centre towards the small reeds so as to accommodate the longer bass reed beds.

It was Charles Wheatstone's research on the acoustical linkage of tuned pipes and chambers with metal free reeds in 1828 and 1830 that led to the introduction of tuned reed chambers into his firm's concertinas, and as early as 1838, most of his concertinas had at least three or four of their smallest reed chambers fitted with a cork cross-piece to adjust the volume of the chamber and to 'tune' it to the resonant frequency of the reed within the chamber. By the 1850s this practice had spread to over half of the reed chambers in each pan, and by the 1880s reed pans were being produced with every chamber fitted with a wooden cross piece to tune it to the reed. A surprising confirmation of this acoustical enhancement can be heard if all the reeds are removed from such an acoustically tuned concertina: when such a reedless instruments is 'played', the hissing and rushing of the air through the empty reed chambers can be heard to produce a fair approximation of the notes or scale being played! The practice of using these cross-pieces to tune the reed chambers appears to have continued both at the Wheatstone factory and at Lachenals and other rival makers right up to the 1930s.

The Bellows

The earliest Wheatstone concertinas were individually hand-made, with no standard model apparent before about 1848, and consequently were produced in a wide range of keyboard compasses, from 24-key in the earliest 'Roman numeral' models, and including 32-, 33-, 36-, 38-, 40-, 44-, 46-, 48- and 50-key models amongst the first 900 instruments made. A similar diversity is exhibited in bellows construction, with instruments made prior to 1842 having a continuous inner 'cradle' or supporting shelf inside the bellows frame to support the reed-pan, similar to the reed-pan supports of early French accordeons. From late 1842, the more usual triangular wood blocks in the angles of the bellows frames were adopted as pan supports.

The bellows on these very first Wheatstone concertinas were of the finest glazed green morocco leather, of a similar quality to that used by bookbinders. The Wheatstone workshop ledgers show regular purchases of morocco leather and payments of bookbinders' bills for the production of these fine bellows. Indeed, similar techniques of neatly skiving, lapping and folding the leather were used as in fine bindery practice, producing the neat joins and thin bellows folds found on all concertinas up to the end of 1842. Thenceforth, the leather used was slightly thicker and less fine, and the folds of these later bellows are consequently less slim and dainty. So as to counter any problems with wear on the lower folds of the concertina bellows, the lower bouts of the bellows frames of all concertinas made from between early 1842 and late 1848 were reinforced with a layer of silk fabric tightly glued over the leather.

Bellows Papers on Wheatstone Concertinas

Specially printed coloured bellows papers are invariably used on all Wheatstone concertinas made before the introduction of the first all-black 'Aeola' models in the 1890s, probably to economise on the amount of fine leather needed to cover the cardboard skeleton of the bellows, and to provide a measure of decorative trim for the instruments. About ten different patterns of bellows papers appear to have been used on nineteenth century Wheatstone concertinas, and they prove a useful diagnostic aid when dating the various styles of concertina.

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