Clinton's 1848 Patent

In his Treatise on the Flute, published in 1890, Rockstro has this to say about the ideas presented in Clinton's 1848 Patent Application:

657. A Flute patented by John Clinton, (1848). 

The two useless contrivances described in the specification of this patent may be dismissed with few words. The first consisted in the substitution of a single bar for the three rings then in vogue for closing the G hole. The second was a piece of mechanism for fingering c" after the old method. The Bb and G# holes were covered by the usual closed keys of the old flute.

Clinton was securely dead by the time Rockstro was writing this (as were all the others that Rockstro defamed), so wasn't in a good position to defend himself.  Subsequent writers have accepted Rockstro's view.  But what were these "useless contrivances"?  Do they really only warrant "a few words"?

The body of the patent document is reproduced below.  Some alteration has been made to punctuation to make the document more easy to follow.  Any observations not part of the original document will be enclosed in square brackets.

A.D. 1848. - N 12,378.

Clinton's Improvements in Flutes

My Invention consists:

  • First, of giving motion to a distant key by the application of a bar placed in a line with the edges of the finger holes, and in such manner that when a finger is placed on any of those holes the bar will be depressed, and the key to which it is connected will be closed over its hole.  And,
  • Secondly, my Invention consists of so arranging the mechanism of a flute that the closing of the C sharp and the B natural holes may be simultaneous by the action of the second finger of the left hand upon the B natural hole, directly or indirectly, at the same time leaving open the C natural hole if required. 

And in order that my Invention may be most fully understood and readily carried into effect, I will proceed to describe the means pursued by me.


[Part the first - closing other holes]

The Drawing Fig. 1 shews part of a flute laid open. "a" is a bar connected to a key, as shown, and it lies near the edges of three holes; hence when either of these holes are closed by a finger the key will be closed also. I have shewn this bar as being connected with a key "a1", and passing three holes, but this may be varied so long as a bar is similarly used. The bar here shewn is intended as an example of the application of this part of my Invention, and this improvement may be applied to other holes than those shewn in the Drawing.

[Clinton's idea is applied to the right hand end of the flute.  It achieves the same result as the the three ring-keys on the right hand end of a Boehm 1832 flute, but considerably more cheaply, an issue that seems very important to Clinton, perhaps because of his teaching experience.  Clinton has been ridiculed for the apparent naivety of the bar concept, but apart from cheapness of manufacture, it probably also has acoustic efficiency on its side.  

A touch of Boehm

Note that the arrangement above gives xxx xoo = F natural, rather than F#, the fingering change pioneered and favoured by Boehm in his 1832 design.  Like Boehm's arrangement, either xxx oxo or xxx oox will give F#.]

[Part the second - better C# and C natural]

I will now describe the means I prefer for carrying out the second part of my Invention. It has long been considered a great desideratum to obtain the fingering of the following notes similar to that of the ordinary flute [the eight-key flute], but with a proper arrangement of the holes as regards their size and distance apart, and affording the means of shutting the C sharp hole, at the same time leaving open (or opening) the C natural hole, so that a full tone may be obtained. 

When C natura1 is fingered thus "OXO XXX @" on the ordinary flute, the C sharp hole is open and the C natural hole shut, whereas it should be just the reverse in order to produce a good sound, viz, the C sharp hole ought to be shut and the C natural hole open. 

[This is a disarmingly acute observation.  The standard fingering for C natural (as given above) relies on worsening the venting to flatten c# enough to give c-natural.  Neither pitch nor quality of note can be guaranteed under such circumstances.  All the time, the hole that could be relied upon to give  a good C-natural is standing closed.]

The mode of doing this according to my Invention may be varied, but I believe the two following will be found to be the best.  

[Option 1 - a thumb key]

I arrange the mechanism so that the first finger of the left hand shall act upon the C natural hole instead of the C sharp, as formerly.  The C sharp hole I place at the side of the flute with an open key over it, upon which the thumb rests in the usual manner of holding the flute, which shuts the C sharp hole; hence I obtain the fingering in the manner above mentioned. I have placed the C sharp key between the same centres which carries the B flat key, so that the latter key may be opened by the least action of the thumb, and without opening the C sharp hole, as is shewn at Fig. f.

[The note names and thumb position identification have been added.  

I am not aware of this section of the patent having been covered by other writers on the flute.  It is an interesting concept in that it reverses Boehm's approach of giving C to the thumb and C# to L1.  Clinton himself seems not convinced, because of the impact it has on the fingering he clearly liked so much...]

This system of mechanism however involves a slight departure from the usual mode of fingering D on the fourth line and its octave higher, therefore to retain those fingerings with the advantages before recited for C natural, I
employ the following means.  

[Option 2 - some mechanical logic]

I apply open keys over the C sharp and the B natural holes with a clutch to each, so that whenever the second finger of the left hand is down it will shut the C sharp hole simultaneously by the clutch of the B natural key acting on the C sharp key.  As the C sharp hole is required to open for D natural (the second finger being also down for that note), I have applied a duplicate hole for C sharp, over which there is an open key b acted upon by the third finger of the left hand thus....

[Left hand stack of the 1848 Patent Flute.  
Note names and finger position indicators have been added]

I place a key c over the A natural hole upon the [right-most] extremity of the bar c1 (which is placed on the flute from that hole to the highest or C sharp hole).  At the [left-most] extremity of the bar c1 I have applied a small arm d working upon the opposite side of the centre, so that whenever the A natural hole is open the duplicate C sharp hole is shut by means of the small arm falling upon the C sharp key, and when the A natural hole is shut the C sharp duplicate hole is open. 

In order to shut the duplicate C sharp hole whilst the third finger remains down, I have applied a dumb key [ie. a key with no hole] e under the first finger, so that when that key is acted upon the tail of it will elevate the tail of the C sharp duplicate key and close it simultaneously. This dumb key also acts upon (or closes) the first-named C sharp key, likewise the C natural key immediately below and in a line with it. The open key over the C natural hole has a clutch affixed to receive the action of another clutch fixed to the tube which carries the A natural key, so that when the third finger is down it closes the C natural hole simultaneously. 

[Now is that perfectly clear?  Let me see if I can make it a little easier.  

Here's a schematic diagram of the left hand stack.  I've retained Clinton's diagrammatic markings (lower case) but added the vent holes and finger positions.  I've dropped unnecessary detail, and shown the clutches as two bars running alongside the axle rod.  Clinton doesn't make clear how motion is transmitted from L3 back to drive rod "d" - I've assumed that "d" and either the C natural key or L3 must be pinned to the rod.  I've shown the C, with the two pinned sections similarly coloured to show they are locked together.

If I've understood Clinton correctly, this is the logic:

  • L1 closes C, C# and the duplicate C# (if it had been open)

  • L2 closes B and C# (via the clutch)

  • L3 closes A and C (via the clutch).  L3 also permits duplicate C# to open, unless held shut by L1.

[The C trill key]

The long C natural key (formerly a straight key), I have removed to the opposite side of the flute, bringing the ear of it within reach of the first finger (of the right hand) by means of an arm crossing at the extremity of the G sharp key, working both of those keys on the same rod and between the same centres, all which will readily be understood by examining the Drawing. 

[The names of the touches have been added to the drawing above]

[The extent of the patent]

I would remark in respect to this part of my Invention that I do not confine myself to the arrangement of mechanism shewn, so long as the parts are so arranged that when any of the following combinations of the fingers (termed "fingerings"), are employed for C natural ....

Left Hand O O O O O O O O
Right Hand X X O O X X O O
D sharp Key* @ X @ X @ @ @ @
[*It is not immediately clear whether the symbol @ here implies open, closed or doesn't matter.]

... the C sharp and the B natural holes shall be shut, and the C natural hole be left open (or opened) in contradistinction to the ordinary (that is, the eight keyed flute), which, when any of the above fingerings are used, has the C sharp hole open and the C natural hole shut. 

And I would wish it to be understood that what I claim is:

  • First, the giving motion to a distant key by the application of a bar placed in a line with the edges of the finger holes, and in such manner that when a finger is placed on any of those holes the bar will be depressed, and the key to which it is connected acted on. And,
  • Secondly, I claim the so arranging of the mechanism of a flute that the closing of the C sharp and the B natural holes may be simultaneous; leaving open (or opening) the C natural hole when the fingerings above given are required. 

In witness whereof, I, the said John Clinton, have hereunto set my hand and seal, this Sixteenth day of June, in the year or our Lord One thousand eight hundred and forty-nine.



That concludes our examination of Clinton's 1848 Patent.  Rather than a flippant application for "useless contrivances", as we might have expected from Rockstro's cruel assessment, we see several well-thought out strategies for improvements to the conical flute.

Unfortunately, to this point, we have not been able to locate a flute conforming to the 1848 Patent (click here for a list of Clinton's known extant flutes), so we are unable to test the ideas Clinton has presented here.  Indeed we do not know if Clinton ever had such a flute made.  By the time we see his first located flutes, 1851 models No's 40 and 50, he has abandoned all of the ideas shown above.  He has not abandoned the aims however, and we will see the theme of improved performance but with the old fingering recurring in each of the subsequent designs.


The copy of the original patent document comes from the Dayton C Miller Collection in the Library of Congress, Washington DC.  Thanks to Tim Gallagher, Seattle, for preparing the schematic drawing above.

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