The life and work of John Clinton, cont.

The  Later Years

By 1855, the 45 year-old Clinton was obviously convinced that his time had come and that he finally had the world-beating design that he had been seeking.  This is clearly shown by the fact that not only did he release another new flute which he named “The Equisonant”, but he ended his arrangement with Potter (if indeed this arrangement was then still in effect) and made the considerable investment necessary to set up his own manufacturing facilities at 35 Percy Street, London, trading as “Clinton & Co.”. Clinton had finally achieved his ambition of becoming a manufacturer!  

So seriously did Clinton take this venture that he gave up his prestigious post at the Royal Academy to concentrate on it full-time. It is of course possible that he was under pressure to resign this  post anyway by reason of his continued refusal to embrace the 1847 Boehm flute which was then very much in the ascendant.  But the fact remains that he had staked his future on achieving success with his own design. 

Clinton’s 1855 publication (op. cit.) to which reference has previously been made introduced the new flute, and his “Code of Instructions” (op. cit.) published in 1860 provided full details of the fingering and technique for this flute. This considerable investment in time, effort, lost opportunity, money and reputation is in itself more than sufficient to convince the authors that Clinton believed passionately in his new design. Indeed, he had staked his entire future on it – not a step for anyone to take lightly!

Certainly, Clinton’s claims for this new instrument were nothing if not extravagant.  He claimed that it combined “the advantages of the Boehm flute without its defects or difficulties” (a double-edged snipe at Boehm’s 1847 flute  if ever there was one!) and that his flute “realised all that can be desired on the flute, namely equality of tone and tune, and facility of fingering throughout”.  A large claim indeed, and one which the present authors intend to thoroughly test as opportunity offers!!

In passing, one may wonder what “advantages” Clinton was willing to concede to the 1847 Boehm.  It is clear from his own designs that he favoured the wooden conical bore and that he was an advocate of fingering as little changed as possible from the “old” system.  The 1847 Boehm abandoned both of these principles. What’s left??  Presumably, the regulation of tonal and volume differences between the holes.  We may safely surmise that Clinton remained an admirer of the results of Boehm’s efforts to regulate the intonation and power of the flute throughout its range, but was not supportive of the methods used by Boehm to achieve these results.

Since we have now passed beyond our study instrument, the rest of the story may be quickly told.  Clinton persisted with variants on his Equisonant theme, but with limited commercial success. The ever-caustic Rockstro relates a story about one of Boehm’s adherents asking Clinton if the name “Equisonant” meant that the flute sounded equally bad all over!  Rockstro (Article 676, op. cit.) goes on to claim that “unfortunately, the flute had not even that negative merit, for it was unequally bad”(!!) . We will reserve our own comments on this point pending a forthcoming study of the Equisonant design.  

Clinton continued to take out patents for minor “improvements”, being granted further British patents in 1857, 1862 and 1863.  But the final verdict on the Equisonant line of development which began with the 1851 instrument may best perhaps be left to Clinton himself.  Immediately upon the expiry in 1862 of the monopoly of Rudall & Rose (by then Rudall, Rose & Carte) for production of the Boehm flute, Clinton began to make a flute which, while retaining some of Clinton’s own features, was nonetheless quite recognisably a Boehm-based instrument. In this, we may surmise that he was driven by market forces rather than his own personal inclinations.

Success followed immediately with the award to Clinton of the exhibition medal at the 1862 World Exhibition in London for a silver cylinder-bored flute with graduated hole sizes. The citation stated in part that the award was  “for flutes on a modification and improvement of the system of Boehm(our emphasis).  Somewhat ironic given that the concept of graduated holes for the cylinder-bored flute had in fact already been considered and rejected by Boehm after some 6 years of experiment! The grounds for Boehm’s decision were apparently that he considered the difficulty and associated cost of production as being not being worth the somewhat minimal advantages actually achieved.

It appears that, having secured an English patent for this idea, Clinton represented it to the 1862 jury as his own.  He had no basis for doing so since Boehm had made a number of flutes using this principle over a period of some 6 years before eventually rejecting the concept on the grounds of the increased cost and complexity not being justified by the marginally-improved results achieved. Word of Clinton’s actions reached Boehm in Munich, and  Boehm felt it necessary to write to the eminent French maker Louis Lot in June of 1862 re-affirming his own priority in the idea.   It is unclear whether or not he ever taxed Clinton directly with this issue as well. If not, one wonders why not.  Perhaps it was because in Boehm’s own mind the idea (which Boehm had rejected) was not worth disputing except among his immediate and respected colleagues (of whom we may now safely assume Clinton was not considered one!!).

In any event, it must have been a bitter-sweet moment for Clinton to receive this award which, while finally according him the accolade as a maker that he had so long sought, once more coupled his name with that of the man whom he had hoped to surpass and utilised an idea that his nemesis had discarded.  In the end, he could not escape Boehm’s shadow, despite trying hard to do so for 14 years.

John Clinton died in London on May 7, 1864 from complications resulting from an ankle amputation after progressive necrosis – in other words, he seems to have been an early victim of what is now referred to as “flesh-eating disease”.  He was 54 years old at the time.

Clinton’s manufacturing company did not long survive him, remaining in business only until around 1871 according to Langwill (13).  Among its outputs were ordinary 8-keyed flutes – no. 4803 also in the possession of the authors suggests a quite high production figure by the standards of the day and implies that the company had enjoyed considerable success for at least a considerable portion of its short life.

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