Saturday, November 23, 2013

Hippolyte Marius Chiron - Vibrator reeds for woodwinds -What Happened?

Anybody who has bought more than a couple of old saxophones has found Chiron Vibrator reeds in the case.  They are very distinctive.  Although they changed a little over the years, the most distinctive aspect is the grooves cut longitudinally into the stock of the reed.  Over the years there were slight changes, however, the grooves remained (although they didn't remain the same width and depth).  The grooves were actually part of a 1924 patent.  You can open any of these links in a separate window in order to refer back to them throughout this blog.

Here are a couple of pictures of an alto and tenor saxophone reed.




Some of the earliest reeds not only had the curved butt, they also a little nip off the end much like a reversed or rocket ship transom on a sailboat.  Some were French filed with the amount of bark removed, and the shape of the removed bark differing.  The alto shown above is filed and the tenor isn't.  The tenor has the flat heel and the alto is curved.  The tenor is made "handmade" in France and the alto is made in the U.S.  You can see that the width and depth of the grooves also varied.

That's not too surprising, as they both vary considerably from the patent.  The patent shows more longitudinal grooves (five) and the patentable claim is for the longitudinal grooves and for "the additional plurality of grooves of similar conformation extending angularly transversely on the curved surface of the reed, the last named grooves communicating with the longitudinal grooves and dividing the longitudinal ridges into ridges of shorter length."  What?  Anyway, the Chiron Vibrator reeds were not even produced with the special ridges that were patented.  The transverse grooves would be very difficult to manufacture economically on a reed that (then) sold for twenty cents or less.

The Chiron Vibrator reed had a long success from the late 1920s, when it was patented, until the mid-1960s, when it disappeared.  And I mean disappeared.  It's easy to work back from when and where it disappeared from, but what happened right at the end is a mystery.  At the end, the offices of H. Chiron and Company were at 1650 Broadway in N.Y.  That's the same building as Alden Music, run by Don Kirshner.  If you haven't heard of him, maybe you have heard of some of his contract song writers, Neil Sedaka, Carol King, Paul Simon, Phil Spector, Neil Diamond, etc.  It was an important address.  Maybe some of those people remember Hippolyte Marius Chiron and Vibrator reeds. 

If you are hoping for me to tell you what happened, I can't.  I was only able to work backwards.  For instance, who was Mr. Frederic Parme, the co-owner of the patent?  Turns out that Mr. Parme was on several of the patents filed by Mr. Chiron.  A 1924 patent (same year as the reed) for a complex adjustable mouthpiece (which seems to be the one used as an example of the mouthpiece shown in the reed patent).  The same year, Mr. Parme and Mr. Chiron filed a patent for a ligature that had a rubber insert to allow the reed to vibrate more.  There is also a later U.S. patent applied for in 1925 that is just Mr. Chiron for a combination mouthpiece and ligature.  In 1928, he got a patent for is for an underslung octave pip actuator.  The latter application lists Mr. Chiron's residence as Paris, so he may have returned to France.  The Vibrator packaging and advertising refers to H. Chiron Company as being in New York and Paris, but I could find nothing about a Paris location.  Maybe that was just Mr. Chiron's residence.

Like many patent claims, it is often difficult to see what is new, non-obvious, and useful about the design.  Those are the three elements required for a patent.  Not so much for a patent to issue (you only have to claim that they exist in the application), but if the patent holder decides to try to defend the patent, those elements will have to be proven in court.  So a lot of patents are granted, few become products, and not all can be successfully defended.  If some body decides to put grooves on their reeds (vintage Isovibrant brand reeds come to mind) or to use an underslung octave mechanism (the vintage Conn 10M comes to mind), then Messrs. Chiron and Parme would likely have been advised to just walk away.  The true value of a patent is often that you can stamp the product "patented" and impress the consumer.  But back to our players, no pun intended.

When trying to find out who these men were, it turns out that there is plenty of information about Mr. Parme and little on Mr. Chiron.  Mr. Parme was born in Avignon, France in 1872, where he studied music in the Avignon Conservatory before moving on to the Paris Conservatory and studying saxophone.  Adolphe Sax was a professor at the Paris Conservatory, however he died in 1894, shortly after Mr. Parme arrived.  Mr. Parme became good friends with Sax's son (also named Adolphe) while studying at the Paris Conservatory.  Mr. Parme and Mr. Sax (also a musical instrument developer like his father) often discussed possible improvements to the saxophone.  Mr. Parme then became a professor at the Conservatory in Versailles, where he won awards for piano and saxophone compositions.

He then came to the United States in 1911 and played with the New York Philharmonic under Gustav Mahler (who died shortly after Parme arrived, which is a creepy trend).  In 1914, Mr. Parme, still a French national, returned home to fight in WWI.  Upon returning to the U.S., he joined the NY Symphony, playing saxophone, soprano clarinet, bass clarinet, and contrabass clarinet.  He also became a professor at the Institute of Musical Art (now called Julliard).  Also upon returning from the war, he saw that the saxophone had been adopted by jazz musicians.  Here is a quote from Mr. Parme in a Julliard publication regarding the purpose of the saxophone:


"In France, the saxophone is not relegated to the realm of dance music.  Such famous composers as d'Indy, Debussy, Massenet and Bizet have written saxophone solos both for the theatre and the symphony orchestra.  The sonority of this instrument, as understood by these great writers, tends to imitate the sound of the human voice, the French Horn and the viloncello.  This shows that there is nothing in common between that sonority and the hideous groan heard everywhere in jazz bands.  If Debussy, d'Indy, Massenet or Bizet had heard the saxophone under these conditions, they would certainly have omitted it from their masterpieces."

Saxophones produce "the hideous groan heard everwhere in jazz bands."  Nice. 

It would appear that Mr. Parme's role in the patent process was to add an air of legitimacy to the patent claims.  He had the resume, but I've never seen an advertisement where he endorsed Vibrator reeds.  He was well known, having had a write-up in the New York Tribune for his playing of Debussy's Rhapsody for Orchestra and Saxophone (This is not Mr. Parme, but a great example of the sax as a classical woodwind.  Plus, you can open it in a separate window for a dramatic accompaniment for the rest of the blog.) 

I'm not convinced that Mr. Parme even read or looked at the Chiron patent applications.  The drawing of the reed looks more like a popsicle stick than a reed.  The applications repeatedly refer to reeds made of "bamboo."  Surely Mr. Parme knew that woodwind reeds are made from the canes of arundo donax, not bamboo, with the best material coming from the Var region of France.  Vibrator reeds were later labeled as coming from the Var.  Referring to cane reeds as "bamboo" would not go uncorrected by an accomplished professor and internationally known woodwind virtuoso.

Despite Mr. Parme's insistence that the purpose of the saxophone was for classical music, the H. Chiron Company actively sought endorsements for Vibrator reeds from the popular and jazz music contingency of reed instrument players.  Click on these to enlarge them.



H. Chiron also started another line of reeds that I had never heard of.  In fact every reference I could find for Deru "Speciale" reeds was to this single 1953 advertisement.


You can go to Ebay any day and see advertisements featuring different famous and semi-famous endorsers for Vibrator reeds.  How did H. Chiron have so many endorsers for Vibrator reeds and then just disappear?  And how did Mr. Chiron himself disappear?  If he sold the rights to the patent, why was it always marketed by the H. Chiron Company?  I don't know, but I do know a little about where he came from and it is very intriguing. 

The reed/ligature/mouthpiece patents were not his first, last, or only patents.  There are some later U.K. patents having to deal with saxophone key arrangements and mouthpieces.  And here's some historical trivia.  When a patent application is made, it is common for the subsequent patent applications to reference earlier patents, sometimes to differentiate the new application from existing patents.  It is possible to find out which applications reference an older patent like Chiron's underslung neck octave pip (later cited by Martin Band Instruments for their saxophones).  Another patent application that referenced Mr. Chiron's patent for a ligature was the application of a Mr. Phillip Rovner for a ligature design.  We all know Rovner ligatures.  Small world.

But the majority of the subsequent references were to Mr. Chiron's patent for his very complex mouthpiece with all of its adjustments (and which I don't believe was ever produced).  Oddly enough, those references were in patent applications for game calls, like duck, goose, elk, etc.  Do you want to patent something that makes a weird squeaking honky animal-in-heat noise?  You'll need to distinguish the H. Chiron mouthpiece patent.

Before we look at the older patents of  Hippolyte Marius Chiron, let's look at that name.  Hippolyte has two possible sources, both of which are from Greek mythology.  The 9th labor of Hercules was to acquire the girdle of Hippolyte, the queen of the Amazons (not Amazons.com).  The Amazons were a society of warrior women who, in order to more effectively throw spears, would cut off one of their breasts.  The girdle gave super powers to the queen, but as it turned out, Hercules was such a stud muffin that Hippolyte just gave him the girdle.  It's a guy fantasy, but a cool name.

The other source of the name is from Hippolytus, a Greek god who refused the sexual advances of his stepmother, Phaedra.  Fearing that Hippolytus would squeal, Phaedra told her husband that Hippolytus raped her.  The father secretly cursed Hippolytus's horses, causing the horses to bolt and Hippolytus to die in a nasty chariot wreck (sort of like cutting the brake lines).  Hippolytus translates basically to "unleasher of horses."  Okay, now you can probably see that I'm just stalling because I've go no more info on Mr. Chiron.  Correct, but first, Chiron in Greek mythology was a wise centaur who tutored Achilles and Hercules.  So Hippolyte Chiron is a really cool name. So fantastic that my French friend insists that it must be an alias.

I do know that Mr. Chiron was more than an inventor of just musical instrument parts.  Prior to the reed instrument patents, he had other patents.  One 1923 patent was a gizmo for washing windows in a tall building without having to send a person outside on scaffolding.  It was limited to washing single hung windows and so it isn't really applicable to today's high rise windows (and might have been of limited use in 1923).  It kind of looks like you clean the window by opening and closing it, or by pulling on some spring loaded scissor mechanism.  It was later referenced by a patent application for a windshield wiper system.  I didn't study this one.
An even earlier 1916 patent was for a "safety boat."  The safety aspect of the boat (actually a ship is depicted in the patent application) was that it had a sponson that ran around the entire waterline which provided extra floatation and "protection from collision and torpedoes."  The Titanic sank in 1912 and the first real use of torpedoes started in WWI about 1914, so the patent seems to fit the requirement of "useful invention" under the patent laws.  However, from looking at the patent I can tell that Mr. Chiron was not a naval architect.

Again, Mr. Chiron had a co-applicant on the patent, a Mr. Berriex, with both Chiron and Berriex listed as residents of San Francisco at the time and Mr. Chiron as a citizen of France.  Mr. Berriex, like Mr. Parme, then went off to fight in the war and later returned to the U.S.
It is easy to get information on Mr. Jean Berriex.  Here's a picture of him and his wife in 1970.
But what about Hippolyte?

I could only find one other thing, and it's an even earlier patent.  It is a U.S. patent, but it lists Mr. Chiron as a resident of Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada and a citizen of France.  It is a 1914 patent for a "flying machine."  Keep in mind that the Wright brothers' first flight was in 1903.  You've got to click on this one or, better yet, open the patent application in a separate window for a better view.



No, that picture is not from Monty Python's Flying Circus.  Yes, that is a little man sitting in the bottom of the umbrella plane.  That's the third page in the patent application.  In fairness to Mr. Chiron, this one tops the charts for inventiveness.  If you look at all of the drawings you will see that the fuselage of the airplane is the skeletal framework for the parachute contraption.  It is a "safety flying machine" along the lines of his later "safety boat," i.e., the "safety" part is the allegedly patentable idea.

At the top of the picture (#18) is the rudder of the flying machine (now called an airplane or just plane).  #56 and #57 are the plane's rear horizontal stabilizers, now automatically turned sideways to "help slow the craft's decent" when in free fall.  The umbrella pops out from the fuselage, the flaming engine and spinning propeller are jettisoned, the front wings pop off, somehow missing the opening umbrella, the pilots seat drops into the shown position where the pilot has control of #18, 56, and 57 to steer safely to the ground, where the automatically extended legs allow for a safe three-point landing.  Good luck with that.

This patent application was Mr. Chiron all on his own, although I suspect that he may have secretly partnered with Rube Goldberg.  There are so many physically impossible assumptions in this contraption that I can't even begin to point them out.  If you don't see them, you need to take 5th grade physics again.  But in fairness to Mr. Chiron, he filed a later patent application in 1918 for an improved aeroplane that popped in half at the cockpit, "allowing the pilot to descend by parachute."  That sounds better, except for the popping in half part, which is the only "novel" part of this patent claim.

What was most interesting about the aeroplane application is 1) that Mr. Chiron was then living in Hog Island, PA, and 2) that I found it by accident after searching for H. Chiron, Hippolyte Chiron, and all variations.  It is entirely possible that there are many more imaginative patents by Mr. Chiron, in the U.S., U.K., and who knows where else, than those that I have found in researching this article about woodwind reeds.  As a side note about researching this issue, don't Google "vibrator" without adding the term "chiron."  You will get side tracked.

Which gets me back to the H. Chiron Company and Vibrator reeds.  I still wish I knew what happened to the company and to Hippolyte Chiron.  The latest patent I could find was a 1928 U.K. patent that listed his residence as Paris, so I may have to concentrate on France.  But after looking at his patents, I did determine the true purpose of the grooves cut into Vibrator reeds.  They perform the exact same function as the fins on an old Cadillac.  They look cool, they catch your attention, they make you want to try it, own it, drive it, or maybe fly it.  The making of a successful product is often just in the presentation. 

And the H. Chiron company was clearly aware that it had a successful product and trade name.  They should have used that name to diversify.  How about a Vibrator branded mouthpiece?  It could feature the patented longitudinal lines on the exterior of the barrel to promote "brightness and even tonal qualities" just like Vibrator reeds. Whether or not Hippolyte was back living in Paris in the early 1930s when Vibrator reeds became well known, he would have known about the French mouthpiece company Riffault, which was producing mouthpieces for C.G. Conn, Martin Band Instruments, and many, many others. 

Here is a made-in-France, U.S. patent pending, mouthpiece with longitudinal grooves.  Vibrator is kind of crudely stamped on the top ridge.



There are several problems with this early Vibrator mouthpiece.  First, unlike milling grooves in a reed, the longitudinal lines on the mouthpiece would add noticeable complexity and expense to the production costs (Riffault, as with most mouthpiece manufacturers, had stopped milling mouthpieces out of solid ebonite bar stock by this time).  Second, although the distinctive Vibrator logo appears only on the bottom of the H. Chiron reeds and is therefore not visible when in use, the logo appears prominently on the box and in advertisements.  There is no place on a heavily ribbed mouthpiece to feature the Vibrator name with the script ending by underlining the distinctive logo.


So, what is more important, the visibility of the Vibrator trade name or the patented longitudinal grooves that create the rich, beautiful sound that is so distinctive that it could be patented?  First, I couldn't find any evidence that the first Vibrator mouthpiece had ever been patented.  Second, we have the answer based on these pictures of a subsequent Vibrator mouthpiece.  Those of you who are familiar with vintage mouthpieces may be familiar with versions of this piece, although not necessarily when sporting the Vibrator logo.


Does that trade name look familiar?  This is another stencil piece, meaning that it was made by a mouthpiece manufacturer and stamped with the trade name of the wholesale purchaser.  These were made by Riffault.  90% of Riffault's production was stenciled for the foreign market, mostly the U.S. and are seen with Brilhart, Penzel-Mueller, Woodwind Co, etc., logos on them.  The shanks of these pieces appear to have been milled after the molding, and there are some slight variations, but more similarities than differences.

If stamped "Brilhart Hard Rubber" these can sell for over $500 and are claimed to be made of super-duper hard rubber (although Mr. Brilhart simply said that he bought some stock pieces or "blanks" from various suppliers to make his hard rubber pieces).  If stamped Penzel-Mueller or Vibrator," then they sell for under $100.  If not stamped at all, then about $30-40.  Such is the power of a trade name or a famous endorser.

It is slightly more complicated than that.  Below is a picture of the chambers of the two mouthpieces shown above.  The Vibrator from "Paris" has a full chamber like a Dukoff hard rubber piece, while the Vibrator from "France" has a straight sidewall type chamber, sometimes referred to as a "Brilhart-style" chamber.  So identical exterior shapes and even identical brand names on a stenciled mouthpiece doesn't tell you the chamber shape (as I've learned from buying vintage pieces on Ebay).  It would be honest to say that a vintage mouthpiece, as with life, is like a box of chocolates.

To further complicate matters, notice that the word "France" on the first piece in the top picture starts before the b in Vibrator and the "France" in the second picture starts after the b in Vibrator.  Those are likely from two different production runs.  They may also have different chamber shapes despite both being Vibrator "France" pieces.  As a final complication, Riffault molded these same chamber shapes in pieces that don't look like Brilhart, Dukoff, Vibrator, etc. mouthpieces on the exterior.  Oh, and some of the so-called Dukoff blanks are just that.  Completely blank with nothing engraved on them.  Those sell really cheap.  (I need to write a blog on American Hard Rubber Co., JJ Babbitt, and Riffault stock blank mouthpieces, although the stories would be even more sketchy than trying to chase down H. Chiron.) (Here it is).

 
Getting back to Vibrator, one could always claim that it is the exterior shape of the mouthpiece that matters, for instance, claim that exterior longitudinal grooves "add an evenness of tonal qualities to both jazz and classical playing at all volumes in all registers,"  like in the H. Chiron patent where it is claimed that the heel of the reed produced a tone.  That argument had been made and was even patented (or patent pending).  I find that argument as bogus as claiming that engraving the piece Dukoff makes it way better than when it is engraved Vibrator.  

Unfortunately, the power of the Vibrator name was not enough to  give the Chiron mouthpiece the financial success and cult following of the identical Brilhart or Dukoff mouthpieces.  The H. Chiron Company had the alto saxophone player Julius "Cannonball" Adderly as an endorser of Vibrator reeds back in the 1950s (see advertisements above), but apparently it didn't think to have Riffault engrave Cannonball instead of Vibrator on the mouthpieces that Chiron had stencilled.  Now that might have created success in the day and definitely would have a cult following at present.  Somebody else later figured out how to take advantage of "Cannonball" as a trade name and the H. Chiron Company faded away along with Vibrator reeds.

(to be continued if I ever find out what happened)



2 comments:

  1. Very interesting. I just came across a picture dated 1965 showing "Chiron Vibrator #4" reeds signed by John Coltrane as a dedication to Randi Hultin in her book: "Born Under The Sign Of Jazz". I had never heard of the brand although it originated in France.

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  2. Nice article.
    The early Vibrator mouthpiece design made me remember the Claude Lakey "Apollo".

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