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Theobald Boehm (1794-1881)

Theobald Boehm, a Bavarian goldsmith, flutist, composer, and industrialist, invented the type of flute that became the basis for the modern instrument a little more than a century and a half ago.

Between 1821 and 1831 Boehm traveled throughout Europe on concert tours, often performing his own compositions and, from 1828, playing on flutes made in his own workshop in Munich. On a visit to London in 1831 he constructed an experimental flute that gave the fingers new mechanical means to control holes placed beyond their reach. He refined the concept of his new flute in the following year, and the "ring-key" flute of 1832 was taken up by a few prominent performers in Paris and later officialy adopted at the Brussels Conservatoire.

Boehm devised a metal flute with a new cylindrical bore in 1847, using a similar mechanism to that of the 1832 flute. His first metal cylinder flute (No. 1, 1847, Dayton C. Miller Collection) is pictured here.

After Louis Dorus, an early champion of the Boehm flute, replaced Jean-Louis Tulou as Professor at the Paris Conservatoire in 1860, the cylindrical Boehm flute as modified by French makers became that influential institution's official instrument. The French pattern was later adopted by American workshops and thus became the standard form of the modern flute. Changing ideals of tone and intonation led to further changes in the mid-20th century.

Boehm's mechanism was applied with varying degrees of success to other woodwind instruments. He was also responsible for a variety of innovations in the manufacture of music boxes and the construction of pianos, a sparkproof locomotive chimney, and a telescope for locating fires.

A page on the Boehm flute describes Boehm's instruments and modifications made by others in a bit more detail.

Chapter 9, 'The Boehm flute', of Ardal Powell's The Flute (Yale University Press, 2002) contains more information on Boehm and the genesis of the modern flute.


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