Siccama Patent
Manufacture of Flutes and other Wind Instruments

A.D. 1845 . . . . . . . N° 10,553.


Siccama's 1845 Patent application has been criticised harshly by Rockstro and more recent writers on the grounds that it was for four instruments, only one of which ever came to anything.  As I think you'll see, this was mischievously disingenuous of Rockstro, and going along with it less than rigorous on behalf of his repetiteurs. 

I think we'll find that Siccama's patent was more in the way of an "omnibus" protection document - Siccama had a range of ideas he thought had merit and cobbled them all into this application.  Is that evidence that all of the described instruments were ever intended for manufacture?  I think not.  So what unites this omnibus full of notions?  Unfortunately Siccama does not make that clear, and perhaps nobody has thought to look.  So, I'll hazard my guess and you can see if it holds water.

The unifying theme

I'd say the unifying theme is "Big holes, well placed, and how to cover them".  Up to then the English had been playing medium to large hole 8-key flutes derived from Nicholson's Improved flute.  Boehm had come up with his conical ring-key concept in London in 1831 and improved it in 1832, but it hadn't caught on.  There was renewed interest in it in 1843 when Rudall & Rose started manufacturing it.  But with the narrow bore and medium sized holes it still couldn't compete with a typical English 8-key in power, even though it ran rings around them in tuning, tone and uniformity.  The complexity of the instrument and its change to fingering were also roundly criticised at the time.  So it must have been on many minds that the way forward was to combine the best features and reject the worst features of both.  It shouldn't take long to come up with a list of features, e.g.:

From the 8-key:
  • big bore, for big sound
  • big holes, again for big sound
  • minimal mechanics, for low cost, immediacy of control, low maintenance

  • standard (ie 8-key) fingering, for ease of changeover

and from the conical Boehm:

  • uniform size of holes - for uniformity of response and tone
  • proper location of holes, for good tuning
  • comfortable reach, for ease of playing
We can visualise Siccama as one of many contemplating the issues, scribbling ideas in the margins of the Musical Times.  Ideas would be conceived, developed, rejected, modified, culled, and finally a short list would emerge.  If any of the ideas looked really promising, a wise man would seek to patent them to prevent others profiting from his work.  If you're going to patent the best of your ideas, you might as well throw the second-best in too.

So, I'd say we're looking at the culmination of Siccama's feasibility investigation - a number of ways that a common set of holes could be controlled to achieve as many of the goals listed above as possible.  So in examining his patent we can glimpse more than four flutes and more than a bunch of ideas.  We're seeing what had been going through Siccama's mind in the year or so leading up to the patent application: how can 8 fingers and 2 thumbs control 11 holes?


In looking at the patent, we'll leave out a lot of the traditional patent formalities ("To all to whom these presents shall come  ...." etc.) and get straight down to the business bit.

The drawings appended to the patent document are absolutely huge - like road maps - and will not reproduce adequately on screen.  Consequently, I've chosen to represent them as schematic drawings similar to those seen elsewhere on this web page.  Wherever Siccama refers to a point in the drawing with a reference number, the new drawings include that point.

You'll probably find the original text a bit less than riveting -- you have to remember that a patent document is not promotional flummery but more of a legal document guarding against the possibility of someone snitching his intellectual property before he has a chance to take the benefit of it.  And Siccama was a professor of languages, so we can expect that to supervene a stratum of formality, to which they are no-doubt predisposed in Oxford.  So I'll interpose comments as I see fit to try to make the document more comprehensible - anything from me will be [in square brackets] or otherwise marked.


[This is the part of a patent application in which the matters to be protected are to be set out.  We note that it is an omnibus-full of matters, rather than "4 flutes".]

My Invention relates, first, to closing the A natural and the lower E note each with a key, for the purpose of enabling me to enlarge those holes to correspond with the other holes, the fingering for those notes remaining the same, or nearly so, as in the ordinary flute, the third finger of the left hand acting upon the key of the A natural, and the third finger of the right hand upon the key of the lower E natural; and also a mode of operating on the lower E hole by means of a key put in motion by the thumb of the left hand.

Secondly my Invention relates to modes of connecting certain keys, so that by operating upon one, another may be operated upon at the same time; and this mode of acting on keys is applicable to other instruments having similar keys.

Thirdly, my Invention relates to the application of a key to the C sharp hole; also to the application of an additional C sharp hole and key capable of being operated upon by the thumb of the left hand.

Fourthly, my Invention relates to so arranging the parts of a flute, that in closing the B natural hole, or operating on the E natural hole (which has a long key operated upon by the thumb of the left hand) the C natural hole will be closed; or the C natural hole may be closed separately by a lever acted upon by the thumb of the left hand, and that the G sharp hole may be closed by closing either the G natural, the F sharp, the F natural holes, or by a separate lever.

Fifthly, my Invention relates to the so arranging the parts of a flute, clarionet, hautboy, and flageolet, that a clear succession of notes according to the chromatic scale may be produced by the aid of only one "a closed key."

But in order that my Invention may be better understood and readily carried into effect, I will proceed to describe the Drawings hereunto annexed.

Fiendish Plan No. 1 - the Diatonic Flute

[This is a flute that Siccama certainly intended for and went on to manufacture, and is the one now associated with his name.  It is the topic of several papers he published.]
Figure 1 represents a flute arranged according to my Invention; Figure 2 shows the surface of part of the flute from b to c, Figure 1, as though it were a plain surface and without the keys. And I would remark, that in this case, although the size and position of some of the holes is varied from the ordinary flute, the fingering as regards the points acted on to produce the respective notes remain the same, or nearly so, so that a person accustomed to use ordinary flutes will at once be able to use one constructed according to this part of my Invention. 

The extended E mechanism

It will be seen that, instead of the small hole usually formed in keyed flutes for the production of the lower E natural [at extreme right in image above], which note in such flutes is always too weak, I have by bringing this hole nearer to the D sharp key or foot of the instrument obtained a hole of larger dimensions than has heretofore been obtained when using the same fingering, and which is more equally distanced with respect to the other holes.

The hole (E) has applied to it an open valve or key (1), which by an arm is affixed to the axis (2), the axis (2) having an arm (3), by pressing which the valve (1) is closed over the E natural hole, there being a spring (4) [under the arm 3], which has a tendency to keep the valve (1) raised, except when the arm (3) is pressed upon.

The Short F mechanism

The valve (5) of the hole F natural is connected by an arm to another axis (6), that axis having an arm (7), by pressing on which opens the valve (5) of the hole, producing the F natural, there being a spring (8) under the arm (7), with a tendency at all times to keep that arm raised and the valve (5) closed.

[Note that because of the relocation of the G and F# holes, and the provision of a remote touch for the E hole, the F natural hole no longer can be simply brought around to the top via the usual Short F key, but needs a longitudinal translation, in the form here of the axle 6.]

I would remark, that although I prefer the arrangement of valves here shown and described, I do not confine myself thereto [for the purposes of the protection of this application] so long as I am enabled to retain the ordinary fingering in using the instrument, and at the same time have the holes of increased size and more equally distanced; and, by this arrangement of the hole E natural I am enabled to bring the F sharp and G natural holes nearer together, and to have the E natural, F natural, F sharp, and G natural holes of the same or nearly the same size, and the same intonation or equality of tone will be produced in those notes. The G sharp hole is also placed so as to regularly succeed in distance those already described, and to be of the same or nearly the same dimensions as shown.

[This is an extraordinarily important point overlooked (perhaps intentionally) by previous writers.  Just moving the delinquent A and E holes to where they should be acoustically would have been a "good enough" outcome, but Siccama didn't stop there.  He took advantage of the new freedom granted him by the decision to re-site holes 3 and 6 to also shuffle the other holes into better places. 

This point becomes more clear when we remember that all of the holes on the 8-key flute are separated by 2 semitones in pitch, with the exception of holes 4 and 5 (fingers R1 and R2) which are just one semitone apart.  Yet, when we look at an 8-key flute this is not achieved, because we simply cannot put up with fingers 2 and 3 being separated by twice the distance of fingers 1 and 2.   A glance at the schematic above reveals how this acoustical desideratum can be reconciled with a physical necessity.  The distances  R1-R2 and R2-R3 are approximately equal (and significantly less than on an 8-key), but the distance F#-E is double the distance G-F#.  Bravo!]

The Extended A mechanism

In the ordinary flute the hole producing the A natural note is always too weak in comparison with the other notes. This is occasioned by the difficulty or almost impossibility of stretching the third finger of the left hand far enough to cover a larger hole placed further from the head of the instrument.  The hole is therefore in such instruments necessarily left small, to render it in tune or proper pitch with the other notes or intervals. This defect I have obviated by employing a valve 9 on a lever, as shown, by pressing on the end of which the valve will be closed. This lever turns upon the axis (11), and is constantly borne upwards by a spring (12), By this arrangement the hole for the note A natural may be at such distance and of such size as may produce the best quality of tone.

[Now you'll notice that in the drawing, the extension to the E finger has been achieved using a longitudinal rod & axle system, while the similar extension to the A finger employs a centrally-located block-mounted key.  This is another indicator of the "omnibus" nature of this application - Siccama is hardly going to manufacture a flute employing such a peculiar mixture of methods (and certainly didn't go on to).  He was simply flagging the possibilities, and asserting his right to the concepts, independently of how they might be implemented.

In acknowledging this though, let us not miss two interesting points.  In the upper situation, note that the A key is implemented with a "second order lever" - force, load, fulcrum - where Siccama's actual production models involved "third order levers" - fulcrum, force, load.  Perhaps he was just keeping his options open, or perhaps he hadn't yet come to any conclusion as to which system would give the most efficacious mechanical advantage. 

In the lower case, the longitudinal rod & axle system offers no mechanical advantage either way.  Of interest though, it is arranged on what we would now consider the wrong side.  He address one of the drawbacks of this at the end of the next paragraph.]

Note.- The B flat, B natural, C natural (with long key or shake), and C sharp, are similarly arranged in this as in the ordinary flute. The G sharp, and B natural holes, which have now closed keys, may when desired have open keys applied to them; and the usual long F key may be applied by reversing the position of the small F key.

[I doubt whether Siccama really means B natural in the passage above, as it doesn't have a closed key.  It's possible that a typo was introduced when the document was set up for printing in 1857.]

Our conclusions on the Diatonic

A very successful implementation.  Because it is essentially an 8-key, it automatically incorporates the 8-key features.  Extending fingers 3 and 6 enable it to achieve Boehm's features too.  No wonder it went on to become the big seller it was.  If we take the 8-key as standard, it is a little more complicated (10 keys rather than 8).  Even so, a score of 6 out of 7.

Fiendish Plan No. 2 - a key-assisted chromatic flute

[Note: Siccama gives no name for this arrangement.]

Figures 3 and 4 show the part from b to c of another arrangement of flute according to my Invention. The parts from a to b and from c to d of Figure 1 are suitable to be applied to this.

[In other words, he's showing us a different body, but the usual style of head and foot would work with them.]

The hole for the production of the lower E is similarly placed as in the Figure already described [i.e. optimally], but it has applied to it a closed valve (13) at the end of the lever (14), which turns upon the axis (15), and the valve (13) is raised by the thumb of the left hand pressing on the end (16) of the lever (14), there being a spring (17), which has a tendency at all times to keep that end raised. 

Depressing the end (16) of the lever 14 [also] closes the valve 18 over the C natural hole, there being a short lever 19 placed between the lever 14 and the lever 20. On one end of this lever 20 the valve 18 is affixed. The short lever 19 turns upon an axis 21, with one end under the lever 14, and the other under the lever 20, as shown.

The valve 18 has a tendency at all times to remain open by the spring 22; and when I desire to close the valve 18 over the C natural hole (without opening the hole E natural  by depressing the opposite end of the lever 14) I can do so by means of the lever 23 of the valve 24, the lever 23 having two projections 25, 25, at right angles thereto, which are supported in bearings 26, 26, forming the axis of the lever 23, as shown. The one end of the lever 23 passes under the lever 27, which is bent out of the way for that purpose, so as to come under and be capable of raising the end of the lever 20, and thereby close the valve 18.

27a is a valve at the end of the lever 27, which is constantly closed by the spring 27b, and it is raised so as to open that hole by the first finger of the right hand; 28 is a valve on the end of the lever 29, closing an extra hole, by which I can produce an additional C sharp note when desired, according to the third part of my Invention. This valve is closed by a spring 30, and raised by the thumb pressing on the end 31 of the lever 29, which turns on an axis 32.

Our Conclusions on the Key-assisted flute

Siccama seems to have made a conscious decision to give the three strongest fingers of each hand to three adjacent semitones, thus definitely scoring on convenience of reach but wiping out on retention of the old fingering.  And note that L4 doesn't even get used.  Marginally more complex than the 8-key - same number of keys but two of them interact.  So a formal score of 5 out of 7, although given the outcry over the minor change in fingering introduced by Boehm, the radical rearrangement shown probably constituted a knock-out blow.

Fiendish Plan No 3 - A ring key chromatic flute

[Again, Siccama gives no name for the flute.]

Figure 5 and 6 show part of a flute arranged according to the fourth part of my Invention, and I have in this, as in the last-described instrument, shown only that part to which the Invention applies, the parts a, b, and c, d, of Figure 1 being suitable to be applied to this, as is well understood

[As in the case above, he's only showing the body, the foot and head being normal.]

In this case the lower E is covered by a valve 33 on the long lever 34, the valve having a tendency to keep closed by the spring 35, and being raised by the thumb of the left hand pressing on the end 36 of the lever 34.

But although I prefer the parts of the flute to be arranged so that the E natural hole is closed except when operated upon by the thumb of the left hand, they might be so arranged, as that, in pressing on the long lever 34 by the thumb of the left hand, the lower E  hole would be closed.

[Keeping his options open!  The omnibus rides again.]

The right-hand mechanism

37 is a valve over the G sharp hole; this valve is kept open by the spring 38 except when closed by the fingering, and it is affixed by an arm to the axis 39, which turns in the bearings 40, 40.

41, 42, 42x are rings affixed to and forming arms on the axis 39, so placed as that when the first finger of the right hand closes the G natural hole, or the second finger of the right hand closes the F sharp hole, or the third finger of the right hand closes the F natural hole, one or the other of those rings will be depressed, closing the valve 37.

The valve 37 may [alternatively] be closed by either the second or the third finger of the right hand pressing upon the arm 43 on the axis 39. The C natural hole is closed in a similar manner by a valve 44, affixed to the axis 45, with a tendency to remain open by means of the spring 46.

The left-hand mechanism

To the axis 45 is affixed the ring arm 47, which is arranged over the B natural hole, so that when the second finger of the left hand closes the B natural hole, the ring 47 will be depressed and the valve 44 closed [producing the note C].

The first finger of the left hand may be used to close the C sharp hole.

It will be seen that there is a lever 48 with projections on each side, forming the axis, supported in the bearings 49, 49. This lever is so arranged as that one end passes under a short arm 45x on the axis 45, and when the end 48x of that lever 48 is depressed it will close the valve 44; and the long lever 34 is arranged so that by depressing the end 36 of that lever the lever 48 may also be depressed, or the levers 48 and 35 may be independent of each other.

[This permits the left thumb to open the low E key, or close the upper c key]

And this arrangement of the keys is applicable to other instruments having similar keys.

Our Conclusions on the Ring-key flute

Another flute with an unusual fingering - not quite as radical as the predecessor, but still radical enough to create panic in the market place.  And more demands on the left hand, so I'd be looking at a score of less than 5 here too.

The Chromatic Flute

[Not identified in this document by Siccama as his "Chromatic Flute", but readily identifiable by its drawing and description.]

Figures 7 and 8 show a flute arranged according to the fifth part of my Invention. The signs on the holes indicate the notes which they are intended to represent; and it will be seen by reference to the Drawing that by this arrangement of flute I am enabled to obtain a succession of notes according to the chromatic scale, which I have found to be clear and full with the aid only of one key. The valve is kept closed over the hole producing the note C natural by the spring 51, and is relieved by the first finger of the right hand, and the G natural hole is acted upon by the thumb of the right hand, and if desired an open key may be applied thereto and acted upon by the thumb of the right hand. The C sharp hole is closed by the thumb of the left hand.

This arrangement of parts is equally applicable to the hautboy, clarionet, and flageolet, and a workman accustomed to this class of wind musical instruments will readily make those variations which are consequent on a different form of instrument, and a foot with keys may be applied to a flute arranged according to this part of the Invention if desired.

Our Conclusion on the One-key Chromatic

Achieving a keyless chromatic flute has been a long-term dream of flutemakers, and rightly so - nothing provides the same intimacy of control as a naked finger over a simple hole.  Unfortunately, neither mathematics or physics are on our side - we don't have enough fingers to go round and they don't have enough stretch to achieve the job without pain.  I think it is fair to say that no keyless chromatics have ever achieved what we need to achieve in a practical flute.

In this flute, Siccama has conceded on the maths and gone with a key, rather than to take Giorgi's approach to use the side of the hand as a surrogate appendage.  But he has employed all 8 fingers and 2 thumbs, achieving the needed 11 control points with the familiar R1 key for C.  So he definitely loses on stretch and standard fingering, while picking up on minimal complexity.  Again the score must be well below 5.

But hey, fair's fair!

It could fairly be argued that a 1-key flute like this should really be compared with the earlier 1-key baroque flute.  In that competition, Siccama's flute would win hands down on power, tuning and uniformity and draw on complexity.  It would be a very different instrument, sounding like a big Siccama flute and not a gentle baroque flute.

The imponderable is how well players could come to grips with the new fingering pattern - a matter which perhaps need to be put to practical test rather than left to applied ignorance.  At this time we know of none having been made.

Siccama's Conclusion

Having thus described the nature of my Invention, I would have it understood that I do not confine myself to the precise details, so long as the peculiar character of either part of my Invention be retained; but what I claim is:
  • First, the closing the E natural, also A natural holes each with a key, by which I am enabled to enlarge those holes, as herein described; also
  • I claim the operating upon the lower E natural hole by a key acted upon by the thumb, as herein described.
  • Secondly, I claim the modes of operating upon one key by means of another, as described in respect of Figure 3, such improvement being applicable, as herein mentioned, to other wind musical instruments where similar keys are used.
  • Thirdly, I claim the applying an additional C sharp key, as described in respect to Figure 3.
  • Fourthly, I claim the modes of connecting the keys of a flute and other wind instruments having similar keys, as herein described in respect to Figures 5 and 6.
  • Fifthly, I claim the arranging the parts of a flute, applicable also to a hautboy, clarionet, and flageolet, as herein described in respect to Figures 7 and 8.
  • Also I claim the applying the hole G natural so as to be acted upon by the thumb of the right hand, and the applying the C sharp hole so as to be acted upon by the thumb of the left hand, applicable to the aforesaid instruments.
[Again, a restatement of the individual issues that are the subject of the application, and no indication that Siccama was thinking of four practical instruments.]

In witness whereof, I, the said Abel Siccama, have hereunto set my hand and seal, this Thirteenth day of September, in the year of our Lord One thousand eight hundred and forty-five.


Our Conclusions

Our scoring suggests that the Diatonic flute is well ahead of the rest of the four instruments shown in the document, and that certainly tallies with the history.  As is shown elsewhere in our section on Siccama, the Diatonic proved massively popular and was Pratten's easy jumping-off point for his range of Perfected flutes.  It might be disappointing that it didn't reach a perfect score of 7 out of 7, but no flute before or since has either.  The 8-key scores only 4, Boehm's conical only 3.  Boehm's later cylindrical would score a 5, and Pratten's later multi-key flutes no better than Siccama at 6.  I think Siccama could be happy with that result.

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Created 18 April 2009