The history of wind instrument design and manufacture is full of fascinating dead ends; ideas that seemed logical or even inevitable at the time, but which, in the harsh light of the musical market-place, turned out to lead nowhere.
The Sarrusophone, the Heckelphone and the bass oboe are examples from the woodwinds; the family of brasswind nonesuches includes the twin-belled baritone, the echo cornet, the ophicleide, the 'Russian bassoon", the 'buysine" and the omnitonic, Chaussier, Aebi and Prager horns. None has survived, except as curiosities lovingly maintained by enthusiasts and brought out for occasional performances in the interests of musical 'authenticity'. But all, we should remember before we feel inclined to mock them, were produced by skilled, experienced and inventive makers in response to genuinely perceived need of the day.
Of all the instrumental groups, the trombone family has been the least subject to the attentions of well-meaning inventors - partly, perhaps, because it has been perceived since the days of Praetorius as an inherently 'perfect' instrument; simple in construction, available in a wide variety of pitches and, in experienced hands, capable of adjusting simply and effectively to any intonational demands. In fact, the only major structural development since the days of the early Nuremberg makers, in fact, has been the application of the valve in various forms. As we know, the valve trombone (sometimes incorporating an additional slide) survives in jazz, swing and marching bands; the modern bass and tenor-bass trombones use valves to fill the gap between the low seventh-position E of the straight tenor and the pedal register. Contemporary slide contrabasses in F and BBb are available with various valve combinations; you can still hear the valved F bass in Continental opera houses, as well as the Eb 'cimbasso' in a number of British and other orchestras. But in general, the basic single-slide mechanism of the instrument has survived unchanged - and fundamentally unimproved - from the Baroque period to the present day.
One curious exception, however, deserves to be commemorated. In 1903, Ernest Edgar Stuart, a musical instrument manufacturer of St. Albans, Hertfordshire, and Clifford Grinstead, an accountant living in Wood Green, Middlesex, applied for and were granted UK Patent No. 1236 for 'improvements in trombones'. Stuart was probably employed at the Salvation Army's St. Albans factory, which had been opened in 1901; Grinstead may possibly have been a trombone enthusiast who devised the original invention and enlisted the help of the manufacturer to sort out the practical problems. What, then, were these 'improvements'?
The patent specification begins by listing the different trombones in current use: the Eb alto, the Bb tenor, the G bass and the basses in F and Eb. It goes on to explain the principle of the slide mechanism, and continues:
"Thus a performer, to play trombones in all keys, is under the necessity of studying and learning the positions applicable to the different instruments as mentioned above ... The present invention relates to improvements in slide trombones by which any desired alteration in length is easily obtained, whilst the shifts or positions in the principal slide remain constant for trombones in all keys, thus facilitating the playing of all trombones by a performer acquainted with one instrument of any key."
Stuart and Grinstead's invention involved a secondary slide, which was extended (or shortened) by means of a cord attached to the main slide. Figure I (drawn for the patent application) is not in any sense a fully-detailed technical drawing and takes a few minutes to puzzle out, but makes the principle clear. A cord is attached to the handstay of the main slide (a), passes through guide pulleys (c) and (d), and round pulley (e), which is attached to the tuning slide stay.
It then passes round pulley (f), which is mounted on, and moves with, the supplementary slide (b). The cord terminated in a hook, fixed to a stay on the main tuning bow. When the main slide is extended, tension on the cord moves pulley (f) backwards, extending the secondary slide. Coil springs (k, k) are fitted, to return the extra slide to the home position. (A curious feature - given the inventors' stated intention to ensure that all trombones could be provided with normal Bb shift lengths - is the extension handle shown fitted to the main slide.)
As the wording of the patent application makes clear, the inventors were not, as is sometimes assumed, simply aiming to create a bass or contrabass trombone with shorter and more manageable slide shifts, but to produce an instrument which could be played by any trombonist, without the need to learn a different set of positions.
As the drawing in Figure 1 stands, the secondary slide's movement would be exactly half that of the main one; but Stuart and Grinstead specifically envisaged different gearing ratios - which would indeed have been necessary - for different-sized instruments. Figure 2, also taken from the original patent document, shows what would presumably emerged - had it ever been built - as an alto trombone, in which extending the main slide would have shortened the secondary one, allowing the alto player to use his regular Bb positions. Figure 3 indicates yet another possibility; that the secondary slide could be positioned within or alongside the main one - a profoundly awkward idea in terms of weight distribution, but one that had presumably had to be covered off to protect the patentees against imitation.
Luckily for lovers of out-of-the-way instruments, the idea did get off the drawing board and even into occasional use.
Stuart, as noted, was probably on the staff of the Salvation Army's St. Alban's factory, which was for many years one of the leading brass instrument producers in Britain, until it was sold to Boosey & Hawkes in 1972. A catalogue dating from about 1905 gives a version of his invention, built as an Eb bass, pride of place in the factory's range of trombones (as well as a price-tag of £11.0.0!). The quantity produced is unknown; but we do know that the Salvation Army's Derby band was using one of these instruments in 1920, so it did get into production. By 1920, however, the instrument had been dropped from the factory's catalogues, and it is likely that only a few were ever built. It is, even so, mentioned in Lt. Col Hawkes' 1929 booklet The Slide Trombone, as a practicable member of the family.
In his classic Trombone Technique, Denis Wick notes that one example remains with the Salvation Army. It is now held at the Army's Heritage Centre in Judd Street, London, and is well worth a look, if only for the fine workmanship that went to its making. To modern eyes, it looks extremely small-bored for a bass trombone - and is. Accurate measurements taken by Arnold Myers, Honorary Curator of the Edinburgh University Collection of Historic Musical Instruments, give the bell as 189mm. The main slide (dual-bore!) has internal diameters of 10.9 and 12.3mm. Total length is 540mm. The bell carries the serial number 10584. An enjoyable feature - sadly, not one offered by instruments today - is the rich and attractive floral-pattern chasing applied to the ferrules and stays, which makes this trombone, in its way, something of a work of art.
Stuart and Grinstead's invention is certainly an elegant one in terms of theoretical acoustics, but it's easy enough to see why it never came into lasting favour among trombonists concerned with the practicalities of musical performance.
The mechanism is inherently complicated (and costly); the potential for accidental damage is enormous; and the sheer weight of the pulleys, slides and springs involved would by itself have put the invention out of court as a lasting proposition. The relatively primitive slide technology of the day would also have entailed huge amounts of friction - a problem, after all, that concerns trombonists to this day. The inventors were certainly aware of some of these concerns (in fact, their application goes out of its way to dismiss the more traditional double slide as 'disadvantageous owing to the additional weight'); but seem not to have considered that it might apply - and in spades - to their own brain child. Finally, and probably most conclusively, it isn't really all that difficult to learn different shifts for different instruments - which rather negates the whole point of the exercise.
It is likely, too, that the aim of realising instruments in all sizes could never have been achieved in practice. The mechanism allows for the secondary slide to move just half the distance of the main one which - it happens - works very nicely for an Eb bass. More complex ratios (for example, those required to produce a bass in G or F) would have required an infinitely more complicated system of pulleys, or possibly some totally different working principle. Still, it's impossible to regret that Stuart and Grinstead had their vision, or that the results of their labours are still to be seen today. Thanks to them, we can still enjoy one of the odder and more ingenious byways of instrument-making history. And if there is a touch of Heath Robinson and, indeed, a very English eccentricity, about their invention - well, why not?