An autoharp is basically a zither with buttons you can depress the make chords. A staple of elementary-school teachers, autoharps allow even the most non-musical among us to lead a singalong, although the instrument has also been played by numerous members of the Carter family, John Sebastian, and Joni Mitchell.

Like the harmonica, the autoharp was patented by someone who is generally not considered to be its real inventor. In the case of the autoharp, a Philadelphia inventor named George Zimmermann filed a patent for an autoharp in 1882, but his design was inferior to one by a German named Karl August Gütter, whose Volkszither was patented in 1883. Indeed, when Zimmermann started manufacturing autoharps in 1885, he kept his invention’s name but incorporated Gütter’s design, which allowed users to play multiple chords at the same time.

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National Music Museum

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