Just recently, Phil Sheppard (Shep), author of the wonderful blog “Harmonica Riff Raff“, made a spectacular find while exploring some antique shops in the middle of Tasmania, Australia. The harmonica he found, a chromatically tuned Up To Date model manufactured by Hohner, is most likely the first real chromatic harmonica ever commercially available.
It was first mentioned in the 1898 edition of the Music Trade Review:
“We have just received the latest novelty in mouth-harmonicas. It is the most recent of Hohner’s famous products in that class, and is first-class in every particular. The name ‘Up-to-Date’ describes it exactly. It is chromatically tuned and is the only mouth-harmonica on the market having sharps and flats.
According to Pat Missin, Hohner produced more than sixty different models bearing the name Up To Date. Some of them must have come out around the same time (one patent dates back to August 24th, 1897) as the chromatically-tuned version.
Even though the cover plate states “patented in all countries”, I was not able to trace a patent for this chromatic model.
Interestingly enough, F.A. Böhm owned patent #100650, granted in 1898. The slider in the drawing clearly resembles that of the Up To Date one. But the harmonica described was not meant to be played chromatically but rather to produce trills.
By taking a closer look at the slider, one realizes that the reed plates extend at the top and therefore create the track for the slider. The mouthpiece is situated above the reed plates. Sitting on top of a celluloid strip and in between the reed plates resides the slider. That is a very clever construction. I have never seen any other manufacturer using such an approach.
I do see a problem with this construction though. Maybe that is why this was not used in later chromatic harmonicas. In order to get that to work, the reed plates must be spot on and evenly attached to the comb, otherwise it won’t be airtight. This is certainly not easy to do.
Since the slider divides the chambers vertically (not horizontally as in later chromatic harmonicas), my assumption is that the comb consists of 20 single chambers. Each chamber hosting a blow and draw reed.
I was curious to find out more about the order of the reeds. Shep was so kind to provide some audio samples:
Based on these samples, it is pretty clear to me that the notes order consist of a C and a C# (slide pushed in) scale. Just like later chromatic models.
I am really surprised how advanced the Up To Date chromatic was for its time. It puzzles me that it was commercially not very successful. Maybe because it was such a new concept. Another possibility was that the slider did not seem to work very smoothly (as confirmed by Shep). Perhaps that is the reason it took Hohner another 12 years to come out with “The Chromatic Harmonica“.