The Saga of Boehm’s 1847 “Essay”


In 1847, Theobald Boehm had just completed the acoustical studies and experiments which led him to the creation of his groundbreaking metal cylinder-bored flute that was to lay the foundation for the development of the modern concert flute. Being a methodical individual, he had recorded the various stages of his development work in a document which was apparently completed at about the same time as the development work on his new flute design.  This “Essay on the Construction of Flutes” [the “Essay”] was initially published in 1847 in Boehm’s native Germany and shortly thereafter in France.  Subsequently, an Italian-language edition was published in 1851.

Among other things, the document was expressly intended by Boehm to constitute his own defence against the charge that he had copied major aspects of his original 1832 ring-keyed conical-bore design from the misleadingly-named Swiss amateur Captain James Gordon. This charge had been aired both in France and in London, and clearly caused Boehm considerable personal distress.

But the “Essay” was not published in England at or anywhere near its time of writing, despite the fact that an English-language text apparently written out by Boehm himself was undoubtedly sent to George Rudall of the firm of Rudall & Rose for the express purpose of its being considered for publication by Rudall & Rose, who had just acquired the English rights to the new design. The circumstances surrounding this apparent anomaly have never been fully resolved.

As matters transpired, the English language version of the “Essay” only finally saw the light 35 years later in 1882 after the death of Boehm, when an edition prepared by Boehm’s long-time friend and correspondent Walter S. Broadwood was finally published by Rudall, Carte & Co.  Its publication at that time was evidently directed at refuting the charges of plagiarism from Gordon which had been openly renewed by Richard S. Rockstro as soon as Boehm was safely dead.

As Boehm had intended, the “Essay” incorporated the elements of a highly credible defence against those charges and, together with additional material included by Broadwood, ensured Rockstro’s eventual discomfiture.  But its publication 35 years after it had been written, and in the year following Boehm’s death at that, did nothing to provide Boehm himself with the personal satisfaction and vindication that he appears to have sought from its intended publication at its time of writing in 1847.

It has been argued that the basic document as written by Boehm is of a somewhat tedious and technical nature and was thus unlikely to attract mass sales, despite its obvious relevance to anyone interested in flute development.  On these grounds, a decision by Rudall not to publish in 1847 may be seen as understandable, and this has been a commonly-advanced reason for Rudall’s decision not to publish. If this were as far as the matter went, we might agree that there would be little basis for any further discussion.

But this view does not take into account a number of other circumstances which relate to this matter. Our purpose here in setting out the various factors stems from our view that the unravelling of this matter requires that the full range of related circumstances must be factored into any discussion of the issue.

Accordingly, our first step will be to present the full range of facts as we are presently aware of them.  We will then set out the shortcomings of the traditional views of this matter in relation to those facts, and will offer our own explanation for consideration.  In doing so, we wish it to be very clearly understood that we are not claiming the complete accuracy of all aspects of the explanation that we will present.  What we do claim is that our reading of the matter addresses the full range of known facts surrounding this issue.  We invite the presentation of alternative explanations which acknowledge and accommodate these facts equally completely.  We also encourage the sharing of any new information of which we are presently unaware. 

The circumstances surrounding the matter

Here we will attempt to summarize the circumstances that appear to us to have some bearing upon this discussion. 

  • Although first raised in France in the late 1830’s, notably by Victor Coche in 1838, the open charges of plagiarism against Boehm in London appear to have originated in the period 1843-44, with the chief protagonist at that time being the well-known flute-maker Cornelius Ward.  Richard S. Rockstro was closely associated with Ward at this time, and his lifelong antipathy towards Boehm may have originated during this period.

  • Boehm was clearly well aware of these charges of plagiarism. In his description in the “Essay” of the manner in which he came to develop his 1832 model, Boehm freely admits having made the acquaintance of Gordon during a stay in London in 1831, and then comments that “someone [presumably Ward] found it also convenient to ascribe my invention to the above-named Gordon, who could no more protest against the compliment, as he had died before [in around 1838].” He goes on to say that, although he himself placed no particular value upon his invention and had not patented it, “…..I am not inclined to be deprived of the authenticity of my invention.  I find myself obliged, therefore, to show my relations with Mr. Gordon more clearly”. Some 4 pages of the “Essay” are specifically devoted to this topic.

  • In a subsequent paragraph, Boehm states that “the surest proof of the authenticity of my invention may be a statement of my motives for constructing a new flute, and the explanation of the acoustical and mechanical principles I made use of; for he alone is capable of producing a rational work who is able to account for every detail, from its conception to its completion”.  The bulk of the remainder of the “Essay” constitutes just such an accounting, and was clearly and expressly intended to serve as the foundation of Boehm’s own defence. 

  • The above quotes, written in 1847, make it clear that one of Boehm’s chief motives in completing the “Essay” at that time was to defend himself against the charges of plagiarism which he personally felt were still dogging his reputation at the time of writing.  But this goal could only be achieved if the “Essay” was in fact published. 

  • It has been suggested that, as of 1847, Boehm’s reputation was no longer under threat in London and that hence he needed no defence at that time.  Others had defended Boehm already, and there was thus no need for him to do so himself.  Whether or not this is objectively true (and it appears impossible to prove one way or the other at this distance in time), Boehm himself clearly did not take this view – the above quotes were written by him in 1847 and expressed his own feelings at that time.  It is surely Boehm’s own beliefs that should concern us here when discussing his actions and motivations.  And his own comments show very clearly that, rightly or wrongly, he himself felt that some kind of published defence written by himself remained necessary as of 1847 despite the prior efforts of others. The obvious level of effort which the writing of this 12,500 word document in English would have required (writing by hand in a foreign language, and no word processors or photocopiers back then!) is indicative of the importance which he attached to this effort.

  • Boehm met with Rudall & Rose in London in early or mid August, 1847 and concluded a deal whereby they would take out an English patent on Boehm’s behalf.  They would thereafter hold the exclusive rights to the manufacture of his new flute design and other designs utilizing Boehm’s technology for the next 14 years (after which the Patent would expire).  Although no actual details survive, this agreement was apparently concluded through a lump sum payment to Boehm, who thereafter had no financial interest in the use made by Rudall & Rose of his ideas.  He had a similar contemporary arrangement with Godfroy & Lot in Paris, details of which have survived.

  • On September 2nd, 1847, (over two weeks after Boehm had left London to return to Munich), George Rudall wrote to Boehm encouraging him to send a revised and shortened version of the “Essay” which Boehm had evidently already told Rudall that he had prepared. The stated purpose was so that Rudall could “see about its publication”.  At this time, the idea of an imminent publication was apparently alive and well. This letter has recently been published in Robert Bigio’s book “Readings in the History of the Flute” (London: Tony Bingham, 2006)

  • It has been suggested that Rudall (to whom the manuscript was presumably sent) subsequently decided against publication on the grounds that the nature and content of the document were such as to be unlikely to attract large sales.  The validity of this view is perhaps supported by the sales of the “Essay” in Germany and France, which were evidently far from brisk, although this is by no means definitive regarding the sales potential in England. However, it must not be forgotten that this factor had not prevented the publication of the document in those countries and subsequently in Italy. The non-publication in London therefore remains an anomaly, especially in view of Boehm’s own clearly-stated wish to clarify the Gordon matter through the publication of the document.

  • Richard S. Rockstro, writing years later, suggested that the “Essay” was so full of errors that Rudall’s decision not to publish was out of his “kindly regard” for Boehm’s reputation.  However, apart from the fact that in the context of its times the “Essay” actually contained remarkably few errors and hence would have done nothing to harm Boehm’s reputation in that context, this conclusion is also inconsistent with Boehm’s own stated view that an active defence of his reputation was required as of 1847.  This would surely appear to have constituted a strong inducement for Rudall to express any “kindly regard” for Boehm’s reputation by publishing the document!  Viewed in this context, Rockstro’s comments are nonsense, like so many of his comments regarding Boehm. 

  • Regardless of who actually made the decision and their motivations in doing so, the consequence of the decision not to publish was that Boehm’s own laboriously-prepared defence of his right to priority as the true originator of his own flute design remained unpublished in English, a situation which was to persist for the following 35 years until after Boehm’s death. This was certainly not supportive of Boehm’s own statement, written in 1847 as noted above, that he felt himself “obliged” to defend his reputation against the Gordon charges at that time.

  • The ongoing importance that Boehm attached to the “Essay” in the above regard is underscored by the fact that, as late as 1878, Boehm was still relying on the “Essay” as his main defence against the Gordon charges, but in the continuing absence of an English translation was reduced to sending a copy of the published German version to an English correspondent having an interest in the matter in the hope that he could get it translated. The relevant letter may be found elsewhere on this website at (link).

  • Whether by direct communication from Rudall or simply through the non-publication of the document as time slipped by, there can be no question that Boehm must quickly have come to realize that the document was not going to be published, by Rudall & Rose at least.  If the document was to see the light of day, further intervention by Boehm would clearly be required – Rudall & Rose had let him down.

  • The clearest evidence that has so far been uncovered with respect to Boehm’s subsequent actions comes in the form of two letters written to the afore-mentioned Walter S. Broadwood, a long-time friend and correspondent of Boehm’s.  The first of these is dated March 17th, 1866 and includes the following statement: “If Mr. Carte had read or had not forgotten what I had written in my brochure on flute making and improvements 1847 – of which he refused in a shameful way to return me my English translation as you will remember yourself [our emphasis]– he might know that I had said: - As the holes must substitute the cuttings of the tube, they ought to be as large as possible.  You may be sure that I have tried everything years before and much more, as Carte and such will think upon!” This letter is preserved at the Royal Academy of Music in London, together with other letters in the same series. We are greatly indebted to Theobald Boehm’s descendant Ludwig Boehm of Munich, Germany, for bringing this long-overlooked letter to our attention. The full text of this previously-unpublished letter may be found elsewhere on this web site at Letter to Broadwood from Theobald Boehm, 17 March 1866.  It includes a reminder from Boehm to Broadwood that the text of the “Essay” remains available in German, indicating Boehm’s continuing reliance upon it and  clearly implying his ongoing frustration at its continuing unavailability in English.

  • In a subsequent letter to Broadwood dated November 15th, 1868, Boehm included the following statement:  At the Paris Exhibition [of 1868], unfortunately, the Jurors, being unfamiliar with the subject [the Schema], declined to go into it; wherefore, at the request of the Committee of the Bavarian Polytechnic Society, I had my diagram published in their “Kunst und Gewerbeblatt”.  This work cost much time and trouble, without bringing me one penny of profit; nor did I receive anything for my pamphlet on the Construction of the Flute, of which Mr. Carte took possession [our emphasis]” This letter is also preserved at the Royal Academy of Music in London, but unlike the previously mentioned letter of March 17th, 1866,  it was included in a collection of Boehm’s letters which formed an appendix to Broadwood’s 1882 edition of the “Essay”. 

  • These letters are noteworthy for their internal consistency – both statements reflect a view on Boehm’s part that at some point prior to 1866 Carte had not only taken possession of the manuscript (presumably from Rudall, who was still very much alive at this time) but had refused to return it to Boehm upon request in a manner which Boehm characterized as “shameful”.  Boehm’s sense of grievance is very obvious here.

  • It has been suggested that Boehm might have been in error in attributing the refusal to return the document to Carte rather than Rudall, to whom the document was presumably sent originally. We believe that Boehm was in a far better position to know the truth than we are – certainly, he was the one person most likely to know at first hand to whom the request for the return of the document had been directed as well as who had refused to return it and in what manner.  If the guilty party was Rudall, how could Boehm not have known this and why would Boehm not then have said so??  We are also cognizant of the fact that Boehm’s other writings are remarkably free from major errors or unwarranted assertions.  In view of these observations, it is our view that if the above statements by Boehm are to be discounted, as some have suggested, then the onus is on those advocating that approach to clearly demonstrate why they should be discounted and how Boehm could have got the facts so wrong regarding a matter that concerned him so closely.  We remain open to the production of any new evidence in this regard. 

  • The March 17th, 1866 letter also clearly confirms Boehm’s understanding at the time that Broadwood already knew about Carte’s refusal to return the manuscript. The wording of the November 15th, 1868 letter gives no indication that anything had occurred in the interim to alter Boehm’s views.  If Boehm was in error regarding Carte, and Broadwood knew him to be in error, then surely he would have corrected his friend subsequent to the 1866 letter??  It appears that he did not do so.

  • In the preface to his 1882 edition of the “Essay”, Broadwood makes no reference to what amounts to the suppression of Boehm’s English-language manuscript by Carte. It has been suggested that this alone proves that Boehm was in error. But this view fails completely to take into account the fact that Broadwood was wholly dependent upon Carte for access to the document as well as for its publication and that these facts may very well have influenced the content of the publication.

  • In fact, Broadwood confines himself to commenting that Rudall received the document (which we do not doubt) but “did not care” to publish it (for reasons which are not given by Broadwood) and that it was “laid aside and forgotten” until made available to Broadwood by Carte in 1882 for editorial purposes.  There is no mention of Carte having “taken possession” of the document at any time.  Moreover, Broadwood does not state by whom it was “forgotten” - it was certainly not forgotten by Boehm, as Broadwood undoubtedly knew from his correspondence with his friend!!  Nonetheless, we do not doubt that, as far as it goes, this statement could well be basically true. However, Broadwood is notably silent on the issue of when Carte took possession of the document (he definitely had it in 1882, so he definitely did take possession of it at some point after 1847 but prior to 1882) and also regarding whether or not Boehm had attempted to recover the manuscript in the interim and what Carte’s reaction might have been. So his evidence is fundamentally incomplete and hence neither confirms nor refutes that of Boehm himself.

The shortcomings of the “traditional” view

As stated at the outset, the explanation of this affair that has been advanced most often in the past (setting aside Rockstro’s highly unconvincing “explanation”) is that the content of the document was such that large sales could not reasonably be anticipated.  While this is a perfectly acceptable reason for any individual such as Rudall to make a decision not to publish, it is a totally unconvincing explanation for an outright refusal by either Rudall or Carte to return the manuscript to its author for him to do with as he saw fit.

The traditional view of the matter also fails to accommodate the fact that, whatever anyone else may have thought, in Boehm’s own clearly-stated opinion there was a need to place a persuasive defence to the charges of plagiarism from Gordon before the English-speaking public as of 1847.  If Boehm’s own wishes counted for anything, this should have encouraged Rudall’s co-operation in getting the work published. If Rudall was nonetheless unwilling to publish for his own reasons, then surely he would have freed Boehm to make other arrangements, given that it was his own reputation that Boehm evidently saw as being under a cloud?  The traditional view ignores this factor. 

The traditional view also completely overlooks the comments made by Boehm on two occasions in letters to Broadwood regarding Carte’s role in the matter. In fact, the most direct of these comments appears to have been effectively suppressed until now – we are not aware that the letter of March 17th, 1866 has been published previously. In that context, it is interesting to note the fact that, although many of Boehm’s letters to Broadwood were published in a very interesting Appendix to Broadwood’s 1882 edition of the “Essay”, Boehm’s March 17th, 1866 letter containing his initial and most direct accusation against Carte was not included, despite the fact that it is part of the same letter sequence as the others and undoubtedly remained in Broadwood’s possession along with all the others at the time of publication.  If the allegation made by Boehm against Carte in that letter is well-founded, its omission from a publication by Carte’s own company would become readily understandable.  Otherwise, this omission is difficult to understand – it would just be another letter from Boehm with a single correction or clarification required – an opportunity to set the record straight, in fact. 

Summary of the alternative explanation

If the two statements by Boehm set out above may be taken as correct, as we believe they may unless evidence to the contrary becomes available, then several things appear to be true:

  • Boehm was not content to leave his “Essay” unpublished in English (regardless of the reason) and languishing in Rudall’s or Carte’s filing cabinets.  He evidently made an attempt (or perhaps multiple attempts) to secure the return of the manuscript for his own purpose(s).  Unless such a request was made, there was no occasion for it to be “refused”. The timing of this request is unclear, but it must have been prior to 1866 for Boehm to write as he did in that year, and could have been at any time after 1847 once Boehm had become aware of the decision by the Rudall & Rose interests not to publish.

  • Upon his application for the return of the manuscript (presumably initially to Rudall, since it was most likely to Rudall that he had sent it originally), Boehm learned that Carte had “taken possession” of the document.  Accordingly he applied to Carte for its return, or had Rudall do so on his behalf.

  • Carte refused outright to return the document to Boehm, even though it was undoubtedly there to be returned if a decision to do so had been taken.  Carte’s reasons for doing so are not made clear by Boehm, who confined himself to characterising the circumstances as “shameful”.  

The above factors strongly suggest to us that Boehm attempted to recover his English-language manuscript, presumably to promote it or use it elsewhere, but was prevented from carrying out this plan by Carte’s refusal to return the document.  In our opinion, this amounts to suppression of the English-language version of the “Essay”, and places Richard Carte as the prime suspect unless clear evidence surfaces to the contrary.   

The reasons for Carte’s actions

The single most illuminating question that can be asked when attempting to clarify the actions of any historical figure is - why? Generally speaking, once we understand the reasons for an individual’s actions, we are in a far better position to evaluate those actions and perhaps elaborate on our reading of the facts.

The reader who has stayed the course to this point will have observed that none of the above factors shed any light whatsoever on the possible reasons that Carte might have for refusing to return Boehm’s manuscript.  However, we can state with some certainty that these reasons must surely have seemed compelling to Carte for him to have taken such a drastic step and hence incur the obvious displeasure of someone as well-known, well-respected and well connected as Boehm.  

Carte’s potential motivations appear to divide themselves into three categories:

  1. Personal antipathy toward Boehm.  We find this totally unconvincing – we are aware of no reason why Carte would hold such a view of Boehm, and many reasons to the contrary, including numerous statements by Carte himself.  Also, if this were the reason, it would imply a degree of sheer underhand spitefulness and pettiness on Carte’s part which we are highly reluctant to attribute to him and for which there is no evidence whatsoever as far as Boehm is concerned.

  2. Temporary misplacement of the document so that Carte was (at the time at least) unable to return the document. This is inconsistent with the fact that the manuscript undoubtedly remained among Carte’s papers all along and was found easily enough much later in 1882 for Broadwood to edit.  And if Carte had temporarily mislaid the document and had told Boehm as much, there would be nothing in that for Boehm to characterize as “shameful”.   Careless, perhaps, but no more than that.  And certainly not a “refusal” as characterized by Boehm – an inability, rather.  In any case, Carte would surely have gone on looking until he found the manuscript if his genuine intention had been to return it – after all, it definitely remained there to be found!

  3. A wish to suppress the document for commercial or business reasons.  This appears to us to be by far the most likely reason for Carte’s refusal to return the document, especially given his well-documented business mindset. The tentative identification of a clear business motive is not an insuperable challenge.  In 1847, when Rudall was pressing Boehm for the updated document, his expectation was no doubt that his company would benefit from the publication of a document relating to and expounding on their revolutionary new product line.  But Carte’s subsequent actions show that his mind was already running in different directions – the development and promotion of two new flutes based on Boehm’s bore, head-joint and hole arrangement but not using Boehm's fingering.
    So rather than ask the question “why would Carte suppress Boehm’s document?”, perhaps we should be asking the question, “what possible advantage to Carte would accrue from its publication?”  If Carte was to become the man of the moment in London flute society, better he publish his own document than Boehm’s, surely?!?  And indeed he did so - Carte’s “Sketch of the Successive Improvements in the Flute” was published in 1851, while Boehm’s own “Essay” remained both unpublished and unavailable even to its originator.


Thanking Adrian Duncan for researching and assembling this compelling analysis into the puzzling failure to publish Boehm's Essay in England.

Thanks also to the many who have provided comments on the original draft; we hope you will find the updated version more satisfying.  We remain hopeful of further comment.

We look forward to learning much more about what went on inside Rudall Carte when London maker and researcher Robert Bigio releases the results of his studies into their history sometime within the next year.


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  Created October 2006, updated June 2007.