C. G. Conn's Double-Wall Wonder Clarinets
By Margaret Downie Banks
Senior Curator of Musical Instruments
Band musicians eagerly awaited what was hoped to be the imminent production of woodwind instruments at the C. G. Conn factory in Elkhart, Indiana, in the late 1880s. Research and development for the production of clarinets had been well underway before a devastating factory fire on January 29, 1883. At long last, on 28 February 1888, Conn was awarded U.S. patent No. 378,771 (applied for on 6 August 1887) for countersinking holes in wind instruments such as flutes, oboes, clarinets, and bassoons. According to the patent text, Conn's invention consisted of
. . . countersinking the holes in wind-instruments nearly to the level of the inside bore of the instrument, and thus, in connection with a slight protrusion of the pad on the fingers or keys, creating a smooth inside passage or bore, thereby utilizing all the wind injected into the instrument and enabling the performer to produce a more voluminous and freer tone with less wind and effort than is required by the use of an instrument constructed in the ordinary manner.
Expectantly, the 9 June 1888 issue of The American Musician ("Among the Trade," p. 255), published weekly in New York City, announced that "Mr. Conn expects to have ready for the fall trade a new patent clarionet [sic], constructed on scientific principles, and it will be a great surprise to the profession." Regretably, the announcement was premature. Although testing had been underway for some time, the commercial introduction of Conn's new Wonder clarinet did not occur until the fall of 1889, after Conn had constructed a new factory building at his Jackson Street location and had received the patent for his double-wall, metal clarinet (U.S. Patent No. 410,072, applied for 23 May 1889, awarded 27 August 1889). The patent itself was invented and developed with the expertise of the plant's general manager, Trumpet Notes Band director, and clarinetist, William J. Gronert, along with August Buescher, who, by 1890, was the manager of the factory's clarinet, flute, saxophone, drum, valve, and mouthpiece departments.
Advertisement from C. G. Conn's Truth, Vol. 1, No. 8 (September 1890)
The September 1889 issue of C. G. Conn's Truth (Vol. 1, No. 1, p. 5) included an article introducing the new Wonder clarinet, written by none other than Will Gronert, who identified himself at the article's end simply as the "salesman of the Wonder Clarinet for C. G. Conn," but who also referred to the new instrument as "my recently patented Wonder clarinet." The "great surprise" alluded to by The American Musician notice, was the fact that Conn's clarinet was made of two thin tubes of metal (hence the name, double-wall clarinet), the inner tube being the size of a regular clarinet bore and the outer tube being the same size as the circumference of a typical wooden clarinet. When warmed by playing, the hollow area between the two tubes acted like an insulator, helping to maintain a constant temperature inside the clarinet's bore, thereby helping the player maintain a constant pitch level. One amateur clarinetist gave the double-wall clarinet a particularly novel trial to test this very feature. In a letter of endorsement sent to C. G. Conn, Fred A. Smith of Evansville, Wisconsin wrote:
I, being in the cold storage business, thought I had a good chance to test its susceptibility to heat and cold, so I laid it away in the refrigerator for one hour, then I had Mr. J. H. Johnson come in with his New Wonder Cornet, and of course it was warm, and when we both blew the key note of course the clar. [sic] was flat, but all I had to do was to blow one long breath of warm air into it and it was right up to the cornet almost instantly. (Letter from Fred A. Smith, Evansville, Wisconsin, 27 July 1891, to C. G. Conn, Elkhart, reprinted in "The Metal Wonder Clarinets are a Winner," C. G. Conn's Truth, Vol. 1, No. 11, July 1891, p. 11.)
In his 1889 article extolling the features of the new clarinet, Gronert declared that
. . . it is practically impossible for it to get out of order, and while the ordinary wood Clarinet which is liable to warp, split, and swell by being exposed to abrupt changes of atmosphere and the application of oil and moisture is considered one of the most fragile of wind instruments, the Wonder Clarinet becomes one of the strongest and most durable. [Other instrument makers tried to make successful metal clarinets but they] . . . have succeeded only in producing the clumsy metal clarinet in use by many of the British Army Bands, when on service in extreme climates . . . .
Furthermore, Gronert observed, these European metal clarinets are made of only a single tube of metal the size of the bore of the clarinet, with keys that are of necessity elevated on pillars and thereby stick out "awkwardly" from the body, as if begging to be bent. Their tone, Gronert noted, is "thin" and the clarinet ". . . rapidly becomes flat when cool, and sharp when played on for a short time."
Conn's earliest advertisement for the new instrument, repeated in subsequent issues, noted that
The Wonder Metal clarinet is constructed entirely of metal and is of the same proportion as the ordinary wood clarinet, but is not perceptibly heavier. It is composed of two light metal tubes, the inner one being the size of the bore, and the outer one the size of the circumference of the ordinary wood clarinet, these tubes when joined together form a hollow chamber between the outer surface and the bore of the instrument, thus protecting the pitch of the instrument in variable temperature. Orchestral clarinetists who use a set of instruments will appreciate the great advantage of this improvement.
Conn's double-wall Wonder clarinet was available in the keys of A, B-flat, C, and E-flat. The earliest examples apparently were available only in high pitch, as can be surmised from an endorsement written by E. Stasser, "the great clarinet virtuoso of Boston, Mass.," who wrote approvingly of Conn's new metal clarinets in April 1892, but asked that Conn "do me and all other clarinet players, the favor of manufacturing low pitch [emphasis in original]." (Letter from E. Strasser, Boston, to C. G. Conn, Elkhart, 22 April 1892, reprinted in "Mr. E. Strasser, The Great Clarinet Virtuoso of Boston, Mass.," C. G. Conn's Truth, Vol. 2, No. 3, October 1892, p. 11).
C. G. Conn's Truth, Vol. 1, No. 12 (November 1891)
All sizes featured only the Albert system of fingering, including a patent c-sharp key, and rings for the right hand. It came in a choice of two standard finishes: one with a burnished, silver-plated body and gold-plated keys; the second, a clarinet which was entirely nickel-plated and polished (W. J. Gronert, "The Wonder Clarinet," C. G. Conn's Truth Vol. 1, No. 1, September 1889, p. 5). A "solid silver clarinet with solid silver keys" was said to be available by special order (Advertisement, "The Wonder Metal Clarinet," Catalogue and Price List of the Wonder and American Model Valve Instruments, Elkhart, ca. 1894, p. 3).
Within the first year, sales of the metal clarinet were said to have numbered fifty a week, "with every promise of a heavy increase" ("C. G. Conn," The American Musician, 26 July 1890, p. 28). For how long this marketing hyperbole reflected actual factory output is unknown. The actual year of manufacture can be corroborated for only one double-wall clarinet at this point, according to this writer's research. Clarinet serial number 603 is documented as having been sold to the Chestertown Band (New York) on 13 October 1891 (letter from H. F. Edgerton, Director, Chestertown, NY, to C. G. Conn, Elkhart, 5 January 1892, reprinted in C. G. Conn's Truth,Vol. 2, No. 2, June 1892, p. 9). Contrary to the data listed in the widely circulated, reconstructed serial number lists for Conn's early woodwind instruments, this writer's extensive research has revealed that Conn's double-wall clarinet line, as well as all his other late nineteenth-century woodwind lines, were assigned their own individual series of serial numbers, all beginning in different years, but eventually converging into one single woodwind serial number series around 1900.
Conn commercially produced his double-wall clarinets only during the last dozen years of the 1800s, because, the manufacturer later wrote, "the prejudice against metal for clarinets was difficult to overcome. They were beautiful instruments, had immense volume, were greatly admired and successfully used in Military Bands. They have had their day and have been superseded by the Improved and Perfected System Wonder Ebonite Clarinets which are now so generally in use" ("C. G. Conn's Part in the Evolution of Wind Musical Instruments During the Last 25 Years," C. G. Conn's Truth Vol. 4, No. 5, May 1903, p. 1).
It would not be until the late 1920s that the Conn Company would once again develop and produce another all-metal clarinet.
Checklist of Double-Wall Clarinets Made By Conn About 1890
Checklist of Double-Wall Clarinets Made By Conn About 1895
"A Brief History of the Conn Company" by Margaret Downie Banks
Annotated Checklist of Thermoclarinets Made by William S. Haynes, Boston, 1926-1942 by Deborah Check Reeves
Return to NMM Newsletter Index (December 2010)
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