Potter and the technological innovation of the flute
In the Music Museum of Barcelona we have a flute in our collection which is a real treasure and represents one of the most moving periods in the organology of the transverse flute.
During the 1750s some English makers began to create flutes with closed keys of F, Bb and G# located on the body of the instrument. In addition, the length of the flute was increased through longer feet to which two open C and C# keys were added. The motivation behind these innovations was: to strengthen the projection and volume of the instrument's sound and to improve intonation. All this to adapt not only to the expressive demands of the new compositions but also to the demand of many amateur instrumentalists who needed it to be easier to play without going out of tune.
Richard Potter (1726-1806), from London, was undoubtedly one of the most interesting and prolific makers of this era. Unlike most of his contemporaries and predecessors, he did not focus his work on increasing the number of keys but on improving the construction of the four- and six-key flutes that already existed. In 1785 he patented three innovations for the flute, two of which greatly modified the head of the instrument and which he called: the tuning barrel and the adjustable cork stopper; and another which affected the construction of the keys and which he called "pewter edges".
What are these ideas that he developed in the head of the flute?
- he divided it into two sections: an upper section in which the embouchure is located and a lower section in which he placed a barrel that could be extended to lengthen or shorten the distance between head and body.
- reinforced the end of the mouth section with metal in order to slide the tuning barrel more efficiently
- on the inside of the kite he made some notches with different numbers that helped the player to remember his height preferences in the tuning of the instrument.
- replaced the wooden stopper that usually closed the mouth with a cork stopper that also had an ivory spigot through which the distance of the cork stopper from the mouth hole could be regulated. In this spigot he made incisions with numbers with the same purpose that those of the tuning barrel.
What are pewter borders? It is an improvement created by Potter to improve the relationship between the hole drilled in the body and the key that opened or closed it. To do this he used a material called pewter (a very malleable and durable alloy of zinc, lead and tin) with which he made a chimney-type edge around the keyed note holes. In addition, he attached the leather shoes under the key with the same metal and attached it to the shaft of the key. In this way the closing of the note hole was much more secure.
All of these ideas patented by Potter had considerable success on flutes built in England and are known to have been highly regarded by Viennese builders. The most widespread use was to introduce metal reinforcement at the end of the headjoint to make it easier to join and slide with the body. The tuning barrel was not so successful and is seen more in English flutes than in French or German ones which are preserved from the same period. The same is true for the use of pewter. However, the ideas of Potter, who can be considered a pioneer in his interests to improve the instrument, laid the foundation for many of the later construction innovations.