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Folkwales Online Magazine June 2012

Gwerincymru — o Gymru o’r byd

The Strohviol

The strohviol: Violin with a horn!

by Mick Tems


Who was Augustus Stroh? Born in Germany, he was a apprentice watchmaker and a 19th-century inventor who took out patents on a Strohviol - an ingenious four-string violin which Stroh had replaced the elegant wooden soundbox with a diaphragm and a startlingly large metal horn. Gerhard Kress, who, like Stroh, was born in the German city of Frankfurt-am-Main, acquired his two Strohviols from an instrument collector – and he wants to know any information so he can do some research in the instrument.


In 1858, Stroh he came to London to see the Great Exhibition, and he was amazed at all the science. He formed a partnership with Charles Wheatstone, maker of the Wheastone concertina and perfector of the Wheatstone Bridge,

Gerhard Kress shows us how a Stroviol is played

an early potentiometer which  was invented by Samuel Hunter Christie in 1833 and improved and popularized by Wheatstone in 1843. Wheatstone concertinas can fetch thousands of pounds nowadays.


Gerhard Kress is a photographer and a maker of Irish bodhrans and drums, who lives in Pontypridd. He said that Stroh took out two patents for the Strohviol, in 1899 and again in 1901. They were used by early recording companies; the violin strings were transmitted to the diaphragm, and the amplified sound came out of the metal horn. Strohviols were manufactured for 20 years, but recording technology moved on, rendering the unusual horned violin obsolete.


Gerhard plays the Strohviol for the Bristol team Rag Morris, and he says the loud instrument is awful but is perfect for the open air. He has photographs of a Stroh-ukelele, a Stroh-cello and, believe it or not, a Stroh-double bass which has a massive horn. He said: “I’m interested in researching Augustus Stroh and his range of horned instruments. If anyone has any information, please get in touch.”


He has written a treatise on the Strohviol, which he has called Violin with a Horn. Gerhard has kindly allowed Folkwales Online Magazine to reproduce it:



Violin With A Horn

by Gerhard Kress


WHAT IT LOOKS LIKE: Picture a violin, and now take off the bit of wood that makes up the body. That leaves you essentially with the neck, the fingerboard, the pegbox and the strings. And you still need a bridge and some sort of shoulder rest.


Where the body was there is now a long, fat and round piece of wood. Attached to it is the bridge which is connected to a round and hollow aluminium disc which houses a diaphragm. When the strings are touched with a bow, the movement causes the bridge to vibrate. This is transmitted via a thin stem to the diaphragm. At the end of this is a large, conical aluminium horn. This is where the sound comes out. The player also gets a much smaller horn directed towards her ear.



WHAT IT SOUNDS LIKE: Bloody awful. Contemporary adverts were wilfully misleading by describing the sound as the equal to a traditional violin. But the sound quality was not the issue. The fact that the sound could be directed by pointing the horn made it relevant to the recording industry. It’s also quite loud, with a sound more akin to playing an empty tin of beans.


ABOUT THE INVENTOR: Augustus Stroh was born in Frankfurt-am-Main in Germany. He excelled as an apprentice watchmaker. He visited the Great London Exhibition in the 19th Century and was said to have appreciated the relative freedom of the sciences. He stayed, build up a business, which he eventually sold, retired and carried on working in his workshop. He became an equal associate of Sir Charles Wheatstone, who, contrary to the myth, did not invent the Wheatstone Bridge but merely presented it to the Royal Society. They had joint patents in addition to Stroh’s own patents.


At one point Stroh followed instructions send by cable from Edison to recreate his phonograph, a recording device. Stroh presented and demonstrated this to the Royal Society. And he was said to have improved upon it. In 1899 and in 1901 Stroh took out patents that described the Strohviolin. A systematic production of Strohviolins followed.


RECORDING TECHNIQUE: The earliest recordings of sound were enabled by the phonograph, invented

by Edison. Voice and music and even whole music ensembles could be recorded. Some instruments were easier to record than others. Wind instruments could be pointed where the sound needed to be, but violins were difficult because the sound travels away from the instrument in all directions. They could not easily compete with other instruments. The Strohviol made directional sound possible.


Setting up a recording session would require two rooms: one for the orchestra and next door for the phonograph. A round hole in the partition would allow for a very large horn to be positioned. The small end of the horn lead to the phonograph, where sound would enable a needle to make sound-equivalent indentations in a wax cylinder. The horn travelled through the hole in the wall. Its other end had a large aperture. The orchestra would be positioned around the horn as near as possible. The musicians had to put up with awkward working conditions. It was possible to indent more than one wax cylinder at the same time. The invention of microphones and the use of electricity made wax and the Stroh redundant.


TODAY’S USE OF THE STROHVIOL: The Strohviol is said to have been used in the Music Hall. There certainly is photographic evidence of the one-stringed Strohviol being used on stage. It is sometimes known by the name of Phonofiddle or Howson, after the music retailer who had commissioned the making of those instruments. I have evidence of a role being played in Jazz. Not long after the invention of the Strohviol, the principle was adapted for the use of guitars by Dobro and National. These guitars are still popular today.

In Morris Dancing I have used the Strohviol when I play for RAG Morris in Bristol. It has also been used by other teams as well as folk bands. The Furey brothers had a record sleeve that prominently displayed a Stroh instrument, a guitar.


STROH-BASED INSTRUMENTS: Apart from the aforementioned Dobro and National wood or metal-based guitars, there have been many other makers using the Stroh system. But the actual Strohviols came in several different permutations. There was the single-string Strohviol, held between the knees like a cello with just one string and a sliding hand seeking different positions to make a melody. These came in a simple version with a straight fingerboard and a concert version with a curved fingerboard. And then there was the Stroh cello, much larger and with four proper strings and a bigger horn. The double bass is huge and looks impressive. There were Stroh guitars, mandolins and ukuleles.


MY INTEREST IN STROH: After qualifying in my profession I became a full-time busker  on the streets of British cities. I played the violin, but remembered that I had seen my first Strohviol in a little music shop in Crawley in 1977 (the early Hobgoblin.) It was £100 and far out of my reach. I reasoned that a Stroh would give me better earning potential. I also liked the fact that like me, Augustus Stroh was an immigrant in this country, coming from the city where I was born.


I travelled a long way when I eventually bought my first Stroh. I later bought up the collection of a man in the north of England who had specialised in Wheatstone and other concertinas and had some of the earliest artefacts, which he largely sold to the Horniman Museum.


I also started to research the subject of the Strohviol and its inventor. I was helped in this by becoming a member of the Galpin Society, which specialises in historic research of musical instruments. An article by Pilling set me on course to look for more articles and old photographs of recording sessions as well as many types of instruments using the Stroh principle. I now have a large archive of information and photos, some of which have not yet been published - and all this well before the internet has made information much easier to come by, while also being guilty of perpetuating myths. I have come across interesting artefacts in various museums and collections, including a whole quartet of Stroh’s at a museum in Copenhagen, which have been used for making period recordings.

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Contact: Mick Tems, Editor - Folkwales Magazine, 88 Manor Chase, Y Beddau, Pontypridd, CYMRU / WALES CF38 2JE Phone: 01443 206689

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