Very Early Four Valve Alto in Eb by E.G. Wright

This is another one of a kind instrument from the early and formative years of brass musical instrument manufacturing in the US.  When this was offered on an internet auction site with good quality photographs, it appeared so different, that my first impression was that it had been constructed of parts from at least two different instruments and missing the original third valve slide.  Or maybe even within the Wright shop, he was using up parts from earlier designs that used this sort of valve lever, similar to what is seen on the two very early Boston made Bb cornets with double piston valves, featured elsewhere on this website.  Of course, I've been proven wrong too many times to hang on too tightly to my first or second impressions. 

Even with just the photographs and a few measurements given by the seller, I was able to determine the likelihood that this was in quite original shape and perhaps not modified at all.  First, notice that the half step is in the first valve rather than our familiar practice of having it in the second.  This was not uncommon in the early years and we now refer to this as "catholic" fingering, referring to the parts of the world where it was common.  The forth valve being shorter that the half step is also not surprising, indicating that it is an ascending half step rather than descending. 

The third valve, for which my first guess was that it was missing its normally long slide for three semitones, is also eye catching in that it is just a little shorter than the whole step (in the "before" photo shown here, the third slide is pulled out more than an inch).  This lead me to make a second guess that it was also an ascending valve. 

With good photos showing the instrument straight on and the overall length given, I was able to make a scale to determine with some accuracy, the total length of the air column exclusive of the valve tubing.  That measurement indicated that it would play high pitch Ab if the valves didn't add any length.  This confirmed that this alto would play in high pitch F if the third and forth valve tubing added three semitones when at rest. 

This previously unheard of valve system is so different than what we are accustomed to, that it is impossible to play without taking a moment to think about the fingering of every note.  Another disadvantage of this system is that can only play as low as D, rather than B that is possible on a more common three valve alto and an octave below that, if the forth valve extended it by five semitones, as is most common since then.  I'm sure that the designer of this system, whether somebody in the Wright shop or the customer, had some idea as to the advantages of this system, but my rather biased view can't see it. 

As I've mentioned before in describing the purpose of ascending valves, one possible reason is that it makes more sense to a player that learned to play keyed bugles or ophicleides first, in which all but the key closest to the bell raise the pitch when depressed.  I should also mention that the only other examples of third valves ascending in pitch is in some early piston valve French horns.  I don't know much about this tradition, but I believe that it lasted into the 20th century.

As I mentioned, the distinctive valve levers are of a very similar design to the "Neu-Mainzer" style seen on two double piston valve cornets made in New England, one by Wright himself.  In this alto, the long leaf springs are 90 degrees to the action of the lever, pushing on a roller mounted in a saddle below, rather on top as seen on the two presumed earlier and the European precedent. 

Our best data indicates that the US made Neu-Mainzer style cornets were a short lived transition from the use of keyed bugles and post horns (very small bore trumpets) to the larger and louder cornets.  In the alto/tenor range the equivalents were the quiticlave (alto or tenor ophicleice), trombacello and similarly small bore valve instruments, and the later alto and tenor horns of larger proportions.  The proportions of this alto horn are very much like those made in later decades, but the earlier style lever mechanism indicates that it was made at the same time or immediately following the aforementioned cornets.  All of this discussion leads to the conclusion that this alto horn was made sometime before 1855, after which the large bore rotary valve brass instruments dominated the American scene and the conventional top action levers with string linkage that you see on many early US made instrument on this site.  

It is also important to point out at this point the importance of the fact that this alto has string linkage between the levers and valves.  All of the US made valve mechanisms that included double piston valves, including the cornets with very similar levers as seen here, have a mechanical link, which includes a pushrod of brass, connected to the lever and valve with brass screws.  A very similar linkage was almost universal in German and Austrian brass instruments, whether with double piston or rotary valves, throughout the 19th century and that included some of the American style instruments imported to the US. 

According to Dr. Robert Eliason, the string linkage on rotary valves was first used on rotary valves by Thomas Paine of Woonsocket, Rhode Island, in about 1848 and was quickly taken up by the all the New England makers shortly afterwards.  The earliest documented use in Boston is by Graves in 1851 and this alto appears to be the earliest instrument extant by E.G. Wright with string linked rotary valves.  Indeed, it is the earliest known Wright instrument with rotary valves.  Also, this among the three or four earliest American made instruments with the bell over the shoulder. 

In spite of claims that members of the Dodworth family in New York had "patented" the idea in 1838, the practice seems to have originated in Boston more than a decade later.  Perhaps the confusion on this point was caused by the use of French made slide trombones with bells over the shoulder that were used in both Boston and New York by about 1838.  This style of trombone originated in France and not New York.  You will notice in the third and fourth photos, that the mouthpipe has a slight curve in it.  By the player tilting his head, he would be able to aim the bell either straight backwards or upright and still keep his eyes forward.

It would be desirable to be able to document the actual date of manufacture, but I can only go on the evidence that I lay out above.  Another, by Wright, that was likely made within a few years of this, is the Eb soprano with valves and keys in the Utley collection, which features the much more familiar top action valve lever.   The earliest appearance of that familiar lever, again is on an instrument by Graves, having been presented in 1851.  

As I mentioned above, this also has proportions much like those made by Wright and other makers for decades to come.  The bore through the valves is .494", the bell rim diameter is 7 7/8" and the overall length is 27 3/8".  While restoring it, I did find evidence of one modification: the tuning slide tubes had been shortened by about 3/4" on each side.  This is not surprising in my experience.  The tuning pitch that brass bands used, got higher in the US some time in the 1850s.  With its unique fingering system, it seems unlikely that it was used in years beyond its first owner.  We are indeed lucky that it has survived.  There was a lot of excitement when it was listed for sale and it now resides in Steve Ward's fast growing (size and importance) collection.