A SHORT HISTORY OF METRONOMES

The pages of history recording attempts at invention and construction of metronomes, like those for automatic page-turners, are filled with failure and impractical ideas but they do indicate a few successes. Why such a small field should attract so many inventors is a mystery.

Early Attempts

In 1581, Galileo Galilei discovered the isochronism of pendulums, that is, he discovered that pendulums (of any given length) vibrated in the same time, whether the amplitude was large or small.

About a century passed before pendulums were successfully applied to clocks by Christian Huyghens (circa 1659) and George Graham (circa 1715). The problem solved by them was to develop an escapement, the mechanism for delivering impulses to the pendulum, which will keep it in motion and yet not interfere with its motion. This invention was the key to success for it was promptly used by those laboring in the metronome field.

In 1696, Etieune Loulie made the first recorded attempt to apply the pendulum to a metronome. His "machine" was merely an adjustable pendulum with calibrations but without an escapement to keep it in motion. He was followed by a line of inventors, including Sauveur, 1711; Enbrayg, 1732; Gabary, 1771; Harrison, 1775; Davaux, 1784; Pelletier, Weiske, 1790; Weber, 1813; Stockel, Zmeskall, Crotch, Smart, 1821. Most of these attempts were unsuccessful owing to the great length of pendulum required to beat some of the low tempos used in music (say 40 to 60 per minute).

In 1812, Dietrik Nikolaus Winkel (b.1780 Amsterdam d. 1826) found that a double weighted pendulum (a weight on each side of the pivot) would beat low tempos, even when made of short length. Johann Nepenuk Maelzel, through some questionable practice, appropriated Winkel's idea and in 1816 started manufacturing "Maelzel's" Metronome. It has been in highly successful use to this day. It is manufactured by Swiss, German, French and American manufacturers who vie with each other for the limited business available.

More Recent Attempts

In 1894, Hanson produced a metronome consisting of a baton which could be adjusted to beat 2/4, 3/4, 4/4 or 6/8 time by compound motions similar to those of a conductor.

In 1909, White and Hunter produced 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.

In 1930, a miniature rocking chair, having a vertical baton attached, which is set in motion by hand on any level surface, was placed on the market. A weight on the wand adjusted the tempo. The "beat" was silent.

With the advent of electricity, many types of electrically driven metronomes were developed, some having lights which flashed to mark the beats and also the beginning of the measure, like Morrison, 1936, some merely having a waving wand, like A. M. English, 1937. Some of them were obviously devised by mechanics having little or no knowledge of music or of the manner in which musicians use metronomes.

Another group of inventions covered metronomes designed to beat the rhythm of a few bars of music exactly as written, requiring the setting of some stops as in Fascinato, 1933, the manipulation of some indicators as in Doerfer, 1899, or the punching of some paper dials as in Miessner, 1934.

About 1900, a Swiss pocket watch metronome was produced, operating exactly like a balance-wheel watch with the modification that it had a geared balance-wheel which could make several revolutions and an adjustable "hair-spring" permitting the 40 to 208 scale adjustment.

As far as is known, the only survivors of all these attempts to produce an accurate, practical and dependable metronome that is acceptable to critical musicians, are the Maelzel types and a few pocket watch types, like the Cadenzia.

Modern Metronomes

With the advent of controlled alternating current (A.C.), it had become possible to have clocks, operated by such electricity supply, that do not vary one second in a month or more. This also made possible 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.

In 1977 the Franz pendulum metronome was introduced embodying the first significant improvements in the "Maelzel" type of mechanism. The working parts were suspended in the case in such a way as to allow them to level themselves when the case was placed on a slanted surface thus precluding "limp." A mechanism was provided to prevent accidental jamming of the escapement and an adjustment to compensate any inherent limp due to manufacturing variations. These devices were produced through 1990.

From 1950 to the present time numerous versions of the relaxation oscillator type of electronic circuit have been introduced adapted to the standard tempo range of the metronome.

Early models were the "Metronoma" and "Stamford' electronic metronomes. Later on Seth Thomas, Sabine and Metone in this country. Cadenzia in Switzerland, Metrotone in England and Wittner in Germany introduced metronomes operating on this general principle. The accuracy of these all suffer from the difficulty of compensating the non linearity of this type of circuit over the whole timing range. Obtaining good setting accuracy is also quite hard to achieve.

In the late 1970's digital electronic techniques had developed to the point where it became economically feasible to apply them to the design of a metronome The accuracy has been enhanced by a factor of 10 or more over the best available prior to the use of this type of design. The capacity and low cost of microprocessors has made it possible to add other functions besides beating the standard tempos. Tuning pitches, accented beats and other functions are possible at reasonable cost. Such instruments have been introduced by Wittner in Germany, Seiko in Japan and Franz in the USA, among others. Back (c) copyright 1997 Franz Manufacturing Company, Inc.