Siccama's 1-key Flute
- A Reconstruction

In 1845, Abel Siccama submitted a patent illustrating 4 different flutes.  One of them was the flute with which his name is now linked, although he at first called it the Diatonic.  Thousands of these have been made by Siccama and other makers, assuring him of a permanent place in flute history.  The other three appear not to have been manufactured, a matter of no great significance, but one blown out of proportion by his chief detractor, Rockstro, and still trotted out occasionally even now.  Perhaps not every idea Bill Gates came up with was a winner.  Who cares?  You only need one good idea to come in to change history.

Two of the remaining three designs are keyed flutes and one has only a single key.  This latter flute is the one we are interested in here.  Could Siccama have come up with a better way to make a fully chromatic flute with only one key?  And how would it compare with the baroque style 1-key flute, which also claims to be fully chromatic?  And how could we find out, if manufactured examples are not to be found? 

Gulp!  Would we have to make one?

A reconstruction!

Yes, consumed with curiosity, Vancouver researcher and flute player Adrian Duncan has commissioned me to attempt a reconstruction to answer these questions.  But where to start?  Let's pull together what we know.

Siccama's 1-key flute

Here's an extract from the drawing accompanying the patent application.  I've just shown you the body section so that I didn't have to reduce the scale too much - the head looks like any other flute head of the time, with the familiar arrangement of cap, head, tuning slide and barrel.

In the middle, we see the engraver's impression of the flute, with the single key shown separately at the top.  Below Siccama has provided a "schematic" view, illustrating the location of the holes as if the "skin" of the flute had been slit lengthwise and flattened out on the table in front of us.

We should also review what Siccama had to say in the Patent application:

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 [my emphasis]. 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.

I had prepared my own schematic for the purposes of the page on his patent, so we might as well review that here too.  The main difference is I've also added the names of the fingers used to cover the holes.

And that's about the sum of what we know about this alleged instrument!  No hole locations, hole diameters, bore dimensions - just a drawing.  We're going to have to make some assumptions!

Just like a Diatonic?

The Patent drawings are not given to a scale, but it is interesting to note that the Diatonic flute image fits very closely to the actual Diatonic product.  The engraver presumably worked lifesize.  And the image of the 1-key we wanted to reconstruct had a lot in common with the Diatonic.  Could it be as simple as this - both flutes rely on the same set of measurements, the only differences relating to keywork?  Probably an oversimplification, but in the light of having nothing else to go on, it seems the only place to start.  Let construction commence ....


Nothing much to report here; the same methods used to make any keyed conical worked fine.  Making the key was perhaps a little unusual because of its greater length. 

One interesting difference between Siccama's usual flutes and this is that the long one-piece body of the Diatonic is made in two pieces for the Chromatic.  I'd guess that the ability to rotate the two halves a little might prove handy given that every finger and thumb has to find a comfortable position.

A reminder about venting

Although I used Siccama's Diatonic bore and general finger locations, I cautiously drilled the fingerholes considerably undersized at first.  This turned out to have been vital.  As I turned to tuning, I found the holes ended up considerably smaller than those on the diatonic flute.  A moment's thought reveals why.  On the Diatonic, or indeed on an 8-key, we have quite a few closed keys - c, Bb, G#, the F keys and Eb.  But on this flute, these are all open holes, thus contributing to venting when uncovered.  Since more holes are open, each hole needs to be smaller. 

This is both a good thing and a bad thing.  On the negative side, it probably reduces the overall power of the flute.  But not much, as obviously the total degree of venting must be the same or they wouldn't play at the same pitch.

On the plus side, smaller holes are easier to cover, and this is probably very important in the context of a flute that uses every available finger and thumb!  Experience with my Grey Larsen Preferred model is that, although the stretches are no less, players with small hands find the small holes far easier to cover when they get there.

A remaining issue about holes

But the discussion on hole sizes may not be all over yet.  We're assuming at this stage that the flute is intended to be played in a "fully vented" manner.  Like Boehm's 1832 conical flute that no-doubt influenced Siccama's dissatisfaction with the 8-key.  So the fingering might (at least in theory) be expected to look like this:

Note Lth C-key L1 L2 L3 L4 Rth R1 R2 R3 R4
Eb X X X X X X X X X X  
E X X X X X X X X X    
F X X X X X X X X      
F# X X X X X X X        
G X X X X X X          
G# X X X X X            
A X X X X              
Bb X X X                
B X X                  
C X O                  
C#   O                  

with the second octave essentially the same as the first, with maybe the addition of a few extra vents, eg the 2nd octave D becomes:

D'   X X X X X X X X X X

But supposing it proves impossible to hold the flute reliably on a fingering such as:

C#   O                  

Arghhh!  Every finger and thumb off and the only key pressed open!  What holds the flute up?

I'm expecting that, as we come to grips with this flute (so to speak), we may need to modify the fingering from the theoretical to the practical.  Perhaps that can be accomplished without materially affecting the venting (eg by leaving two holes in a row open, then closing one after that to support the flute), but it might be that it can't.  If not, we can expect to need to adjust hole sizes to compensate.  But that's OK, we have plenty of room to move.

The Real Thing

So, here's the real thing.  Perhaps the first Siccama 1-key Chromatic Flute since the late 1840's.  Or indeed, perhaps the only Siccama 1-key Chromatic Flute ever made!  Do I hear Rockstro chuckling from the Beyond?  What's that sulphurous smell?

How does it feel?

Well, I'll admit to a person who has played Irish style flute for 35 years, decidedly odd.  But not impossible to hold, so hope remains. 

Indeed, the stretches are negligible, unlike the baroque 1-key or the romantic 4 to 8-key flutes.  So stretch is not the issue.  I suspect the issue will arise when not covering holes, rather than when covering them.

And how was the tuning?

Not bad at all, especially for a first prototype based on an unscaled drawing from a 164 year old patent application!  The chart below was prepared by Real Time Tuning Analysis with me blowing the "fully vented" fingering pattern (as shown in the chart above). 


I've just looked at the first two octaves for now - the third octave will take more investigation.  But given the availability of fingerholes at every semitone, I'd expect we'll have little difficulty in finding satisfactory fingerings up there.

We shouldn't see the chart above as an indicator of how good was the tuning of the original flute (if it was ever made!).  I'm confident we could get that tuning much better - perhaps almost perfect - by modifying the bore (remember we just used Siccama's Diatonic Flute bore as our jumping off point).  After all, just like Boehm's conical flute, we have a hole for every semitone and the holes are spread at acoustically appropriate distances.

How does it compare?

It's very interesting to contrast the performance of Siccama's 1-key with the Baroque 1-key flute (which is perhaps the fairest comparison).  Nowhere on Siccama's flute do we see the challenging tuning problems that bedevil the baroque flute - eg the F# that is 40 cents flat and the F natural that is 40 cents sharp.  And all the notes are clear and full, unlike say the dismally weak Bb and G# on the baroque instrument.

(Baroque 1-key players and makers are probably bristling a bit at this point!  The baroque 1-key is certainly capable of being played most deliciously, but such success is a tribute more to the player, rather than the design.  In Siccama's period, flute players were looking for volume and intonation that the baroque flute could not deliver.  1-key flutes continued to be made, but not for serious music makers.)

Even the English romantic period 8-key, the forerunner to the modern Irish Flute, has notes that are hard to get as accurate as our first attempt at Siccama's 1-key has achieved.  F# and C# are often -30, while our prototype has contained everything within 20 cents.  With the promise of better to come if we wanted to proceed with it.

What happens next?

But before we go fiddling further, we need now to answer the BIG QUESTIONS:

  • could a player learn to play and enjoy a flute with this layout?

  • would any minor changes to hole positions substantially improve the ergonomics?

  • could the player employ the theoretically desirable "fully vented" fingering pattern, or would practical issues (like being able to hold the flute securely) require adopting a compromise fingering pattern?

  • would the compromise fingering pattern substantially alter the tuning?

  • are there any cross-fingerings that would be of particular value in say fast passages that almost work but deserve mining for?

  • are there any insurmountable problems finding third octave fingerings that work?

These are questions for players rather than makers to tease out, so it's time now for our reconstructed flute to leave the nest and nervously take its place among the flutes of the world.  If the system seems viable but changes need to be made to make it easier or better, there is nothing I can see that would prevent that happening.  That's in contrast with say the baroque 1-key or the Romantic 4 to 8-key flute where there are statutory limitations that cannot be easily overcome.

Other attempts at keyless and nearly keyless flutes.

If, about now, you are thinking this whole thing has surely been a fool's errand, it's time to remember that many have sought the elusive goal of a totally keyless (or even mostly keyless) fully chromatic flute.  In chronological order, we can point to at least:

  • the baroque 1-key, reigning unchallenged through the 17th and 18th centuries.  It approximated a chromatic scale, demanding much from the player to lip notes up or down as needed.

  • Tromlitz, around 1800, talks about designing a better 1-key flute with only a Eb key, but concludes that, while it is possible, the fingering becomes very difficult.

  • Pottgiesser, in 1803, published a suggested plan for a single keyed flute in which the right thumb operated the Eb key, all other notes being controlled by the remaining thumb and fingers.

  • Dr Burghley, a gentleman flute maker of Camden Town in London, circa 1845, produced a range of flutes with no or few keys.  Examples can be found in the on-line catalogue of the Dayton C Miller Collection.

  • Signor Carlo T. Giorgi patented a vertical flute made in ebonite by Wallis in London and Maino & Orsi in Milan.  This could be keyless or have several keys.  Every available digit and even the side of the hand was pressed into service in Giorgi's keyless version.

  • Modern maker Skip Healy produces a 10 hole keyless chromatic flute, essentially a keyless Irish flute with the missing chromatic notes assigned to the remaining fingers.

  • There may be others I've missed - be sure to let me know!

So it wasn't just a Siccama obsession - indeed, it's the Philosopher's Stone of flutemaking.  Every open-hole flute player knows that keys seem clumsy compared to the elegance of the simple hole.  But coming up with a viable system has proved a difficult challenge.  Time permitting, we'll look at some of these other approaches and compare them with the Siccama.

So what will players think?

I've made reaction to Siccama's 1-key the subject of a separate chapter...


To my research colleague Adrian Duncan, for commissioning the project.  And to the Library of Congress, British Library, Glasgow University Library and the UK Patents Office for keeping and providing copies of Siccama's treatises.



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  Created 20 April 2009