The Pioneering Dulcitone

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The Dulcitone (invented by Thomas Machell in the late 1860s) plays an interesting part in the history of the piano. Its contribution is twofold. Firstly it was a relatively inexpensive, compact and lightweight alternative to the acoustic piano — ideal for the smaller home. And secondly, it was a direct forerunner of the ubiquitous (Fender) Rhodes electric piano.

A studio photo of a Dulcitone from the front
A standard 5-octave Dulcitone. Photo (modified): FKHeath, CC BY-SA 4.0

Although it is estimated that only between 2,000 and 6,000 Dulcitones were ever produced, these instruments seem to appear quite often at auctions. It was a recent listing that prompted this article.

In December 1907, at a presentation before the Royal Philosophical Society of Glasgow (Scotland), Machell defined the Dulcitone as “a key-board percussion musical instrument”. But a more apt definition is “a tuning fork piano”.

The Dulcitone uses a simplified grand piano down-striking action, i.e. the hammers are mounted above the strings (tuning forks).


Annotated diagram showing the action of the Dulcitone
Diagram showing the action of the Dulcitone (not to scale)

When a key (1) is pressed the jack (2) pushes down on the hammer butt (3) causing the hammer (4) to strike the tuning fork (5). The induced vibrations are passed through a spring (6) to the bridge (7) and to the soundboard (8). Depressing the key simultaneously pushes down on the damper wire (9), raising the damper (10). The hammer is returned to its initial position using a spring (11).


The tuning forks were fabricated from rods of metal bent into a U shape. Their length and thickness determine the pitch of the note. Fine-tuning is achievable by filing the rods (aka tines).

When pressed, a damper pedal, attached to the front right leg raises all the dampers simultaneously, just like a conventional acoustic piano.

The standard model has a 5-octave keyboard spanning A to A, however smaller 3½- and 4-octave versions were also produced. So this makes for a very compact instrument especially since there are no strings or a frame to accommodate, just a set of tuning forks and a soundboard. A 5-octave Dulcitone weighs in at around 27kg (60lbs). A small upright piano weighs over 55kg (120lbs).

A photo of a Dulcitone with the keyboard and action taken out and sitting upside down on the case of the instrument
A standard 5-octave Dulcitone with the keyboard and action showing

The construction of the casework varied over the years. The main body of the instrument was generally made of oak with the base of the instrument, acting as the soundboard, made of pine.

Applications

The sound produced by the Dulcitone is quiet and delicate, perhaps akin to a harp, and therefore suited primarily to home use. It was however an attractive alternative to having a much larger, heavier and louder upright piano. Another advantage of the Dulcitone was that it didn’t need tuning.

studio photo of a smaller Dulcitone
The smallest Dulcitone in the range with a 3½ octave keyboard and fold-away legs. Photo: Lockdales Auctioneers.

The company made great play of the portability and this stable tuning in the instrument’s various sales brochures. Here it was claimed that the Dulcitone could be taken to “out-of-the-way” corners of the country; it could be of great importance in religious and missionary work. It also stated that it had played its part in the war [WWI] having “…found its way to all fronts, naval as well as military, even into German prison camps, and was much used on destroyers, submarines and patrol boats, etc.”

In 1915 Thomas Machell died at the age of 74. Production of the Dulcitone continued until the mid-1920s under the auspices of his sons.

History

Although he had invented the instrument in the late 1860s, Machell (born 1842 in Edinburgh) took some time to perfect it. And it wasn’t until the 1880s that his company started producing the Dulcitone at its factory in Glasgow, Scotland.

The Dulcitone had appeared around the same time as French inventor Victor Mustel’s Typophone, which used a similar tuning fork mechanism. However the Typophone achieved less commercial success. Auguste Mustel, Victor’s son, went on to invent the Celesta (or Celeste) in 1886. Here he used metal plates as the vibrating medium.

Other examples of tuning-fork pianos subsequently appeared including, from Germany, the Adiaphon.

image showing three monochrome ads for the Dulcitone
Adverts for the Dulcitone (c.1920s).

But it was the Rhodes piano that was to be the greatest manifestation of the tuning-fork piano. It too featured in wartime having been created as an acoustic instrument during World War II. However, the Rhodes piano really established itself in the 1950s when it was electrified/amplified with the addition of electromagnetic pickups. And of course, it went on to become the most important electric piano ever.

As stated, Dulcitones do crop up at auction, especially in the UK. And you can expect to pay between $250 and $1000 (depending on condition) for one. In 1925 a standard Dulcitone sold for approximately $125 (£25), equivalent to $2,125 (£1,500) in today’s money.

The following institutions include Dulcitones in their musical instrument collections…
Whittaker’s Musical Museum, New Zealand
The Eric Feller Early Keyboard Collection
National Museum of American History, USA
The Horniman Museum, UK
Piano Museum Haus Eller, Germany.



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