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The bad harmonica years are over!

And other recent highlights from the Ideas blog


Last week in St. Louis, the Society for the Preservation & Advancement of the Harmonica held its 50th anniversary conference—and a fun, detailed article on the website Collectors Weekly explains that milestone took place as the instrument is entering a new golden era.

For most of the 20th century, the harmonica—known alternately as the “tin sandwich,” “blues harp,” or “Mississippi saxophone”—was a vital instrument, featured in everything from German folk songs to John Lennon’s melody in “Love Me Do.” But beginning in the mid-1970s, the harmonica declined in popularity. The article suggests it wasn’t just shifting tastes, but something far more specific: a design flaw introduced into the most popular model made by the largest harmonica maker in the world.

Harmonicas contain reeds, fitted into slots, which, when you blow or suck on them, vibrate to produce sound. Writer Ben Marks explains that in the 1970s, the German firm Hohner widened the slots that held the reeds in its venerable Marine Band harmonica. The change reduced manufacturing costs, but it also made the harmonicas, according to Marks, “virtually impossible to control.” The wider slots meant players had to blow harder, which made it difficult to play with precision. Hohner continued to dominate the harmonica market, which meant that a generation of children first became acquainted with a dud version of the instrument. The problem wasn’t fixed until the 1990s, when a group of harmonica advocates finally compelled a redesign.

Now that the design flaw has been fixed, Marine Band harmonicas are as good as they were in the bluesy 1930s, and, Marks writes, harmonica music has entered a renaissance period. This is good news for all of us. It’s also an interesting case study in how mundane aspects of the physical world can influence the way art and culture evolve. Sometimes they turn on something no bigger than a screw.


Pod people

Hurricane season is around the corner, and a Seattle-area company is taking preorders for a product called Survival Capsule, which is meant to get you (and your whole family) through even the worst coastal storms. The Survival Capsule, which comes in up to 10-person sizes, includes a water tank, personal air supply, four-point harness seating, and a “solid, watertight marine door.” (There is also an option for a “dry powder seat toilet,” handy since the capsule is designed for stays of up to five days.) The two-person version is expected to cost between $12,000 and $15,000, and though it sounds like survivalist concept art, it already has buyers—cofounder Julian Sharpe is marketing it most aggressively in disaster-prone Japan, where he sold 10 on a recent trip.

Tocqueville’s secret source

Alexis de Tocqueville is often regarded as the keenest observer of American democracy, but a new article explains that he had a lot of help along the way—especially from one of Massachusetts’ leading lights.

In 1831 Tocqueville, a young French aristocrat, journeyed across the Atlantic to observe life in America. The result of his two years here was the famous “Democracy in America,” two volumes whose observations seem miraculously incisive, especially from someone new to the country. As Guy Aiken, a graduate student at the University of Virginia, details in an article published in the current issue of The Tocqueville Review, his insight was in fact nurtured by a local—Jared Sparks, a prominent 19th-century historian who went on to become president of Harvard University.


Aiken describes Sparks as Tocqueville’s “most valuable informant” while he was in America. Sparks and Tocqueville exchanged letters, and Sparks wrote Tocqueville a long study called “Observations on the Government of Towns in Massachusetts,” which explained a central feature of American life. Tocqueville couldn’t make complete sense of towns because in France, all political power flowed down from the monarch. Sparks explained to him that in America, political power moved in the other direction, from the towns up.

Sparks also prompted
several other ideas that would become central to “Democracy in America,” but Aiken argues that his most significant contribution was to plant the seed of one of Tocqueville’s most powerful ideas: the “tyranny of the majority.” In 1831 he wrote to Tocqueville, “In this country the political dogma is that the majority is always right.... Sometimes the majority has sought to oppress the minority.” Tocqueville made that insight famous in his work.

It’s easy to view a book like “Democracy in America” as the expression of a brilliant mind. Appreciating Sparks’ contributions to Tocqueville’s thought doesn’t diminish what Tocqueville achieved—but it does suggest that all great ideas have a history.


Kevin Hartnett can be reached at