I recently stumbled across a very interesting website called Free Patents Online. The site includes a searchable database of patents covering a wide range of inventions. Being a horn player, I of course looked for something related to my field – wooden mouthpieces. Several years ago I remember seeing ads for horn mouthpieces made of exotic woods, but it’s been awhile since I saw an ad for one either online or in print. Looking at the entry titled “Wooden Mouthpieces for Brass Wind Musical Instruments,” I can bring up a PDF of the actual patent document, which provides lots of interesting information. The patent date is June 16, 1959, and the inventor is Ward Fearn, a name well known in the horn playing community. The first page includes detailed diagrams of a wooden horn, trumpet, trombone, and tuba mouthpiece, which are referenced later in the document. The second page begins with a general description of the purpose and scope of the invention.
…this invention contemplates, as a new article of manufacture, a mouthpiece for brasswind instruments , formed of a single piece of hard, close-grained wood, or equivalent material readily made to any desired interior configuration (depending upon the requirements and preferences of the player), having (as compared with known types of mouthpieces, such as the usual brass or other metal mouthpieces) a novel exterior configuration which is adapted to take advantage of the desirable qualities of the material in such a manner as to provide playing characteristics which are at least equal to and generally substantially superior to those of the known metal mouthpieces.
You can read the rest of the document for additional information, but in summary the inventor believed that these wooden mouthpieces could improve the intonation, tone quality, and stability of the harmonic series on a horn. The specific types of wood that Mr. Fearn used for his mouthpieces are also listed: East Indian boxwood, Turkish boxwood, grenadilla wood, ironwood, snakewood, mahogany, Brazilian rosewood, satinwood, lemonwood, lignum vitae, and African black ebony. Just from reading over the materials in this patent it is clear to me that a tremendous amount of thought, effort, and skill went into creating and producing these mouthpieces, even if they don’t seem to have taken hold with many horn players. I briefly (30 seconds or less) played on a wooden mouthpiece in a lesson during graduate school, but it wasn’t long enough to assess whether the mouthpiece imparted any of the benefits described above. I would be interested to know if there are any professional players out there today currently using wooden mouthpieces, and what differences they notice between them and the more standard metal mouthpieces.
Getting back to the website, I’m sure there are other sites like Free Patents Online, and I encourage anyone interested in the design, construction, and history of musical instruments to check out some of the patents out there. Just doing a search for “French horn” on this site brought up several intriguing patents, including new designs for instruments, as well as a mute which is supposed to change timbre without reducing volume. I’ll continue to spend some time on this site, and will probably post on it more in the future.