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The Dital Age
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Author:  Nanohedron [ Fri Dec 28, 2018 6:21 pm ]
Post subject:  The Dital Age

No, it's not a typo, but a way obscure topic. As I understand it so far, a dital is a now-obsolete sharping mechanism found on earlier European concert harps and so-called "dital harps" (which were a lyre-like lap instrument invented in the 19th century). Ditals were known to be in use in at least the 1800s, but that's about as precise as I can come up with. A bit of background: I learned that John Egan (active 1804-38), the acknowledged father of the modern Irish harp (we can discuss the debatably "Irish" part of it later if we need to), made it his mission to reinvent the fast-disappearing Gaelic harp and so keep harp playing alive within the Irish and Scottish traditions. To accomplish this he notably introduced the Continental elements of gut strings, and for greater chromaticism, the dital sharping mechanisms that were in use in Europe at the time (it is this word that piqued my curiosity and which brings me here); the general direction he took with these harps - more portable than the concert monsters and more versatile than the fixed-tuning Gaelic wire-strung harp - proved to be a resounding success in keeping traditional harping alive, even if out of practical necessity it had to be redefined, rather than preserved in its original form. Nowadays folk harpists favor synthetic strings over gut, and the latest sharping levers are no doubt markedly different from their (presumed, at this point) predecessor, the dital (otherwise I wager we would have kept the name), but the basic concepts remain the same, and as we can see, Egan's influence is a legacy that endures, so the dital must have done its job well enough for people to care to improve on it.

Now to my question: Just what the heck, then, IS a dital? I've done a lot of searching (and that's another thing: Google insisted that surely I must mean "digital". No? Then surely I must mean "detail". No? Then surely I must mean "distal". Let me tell you, it's been a slog thru the muck) and all I can find is that it is acknowledged that ditals exist/have existed, are/were sharping mechanisms, and that's pretty much it. Not much other detail is to be had, and it's not clear that the ditals used on harps and the ditals used on the dital harp/harp lyre are even the same thing. There's nothing on how they work in either case. It's easier to find info on the still yet more primitive sharping hooks.

It's become clear that this will be a long shot indeed, but does anyone here have any experience with or knowledge of ditals, particularly harp ditals?

Author:  kkrell [ Fri Dec 28, 2018 8:17 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: The Dital Age

First, let me say, I know nothing but what I find on Google.

BTW, lots of photos (search for "dital" harp) {might be best to look for lute}: ... zZgfO7CPHE

Anyway, I came across this, which might point to the invention or at least wider-spread use. Patented in 1816 by Edward Light. Some photos of detail possibly on the same page, so go visit. Any of the quoted in bold are by me, just to whet your appetite. wrote:
Edward Light published a book in 1783 called "The Ladies' Amusement : Being a Collection of Favourite Songs and Lessons within Compass of the Guitar." and in 1816 in the "New and Complete Directory... Playing on the Patent British Lute-Harp" he said

"The Patent British Lute-Harp is a very great and essential improvement upon an Instrument originally invented by the Editor and Patentee called the HARP-LUTE, which, tho' it has been so favorably received and patronised by Ladies of the first rank, and Musical taste in the United Kingdom, in number far exceeding the Inventor's most sanguine expectation, yet in process of time, and upon more mature experience, he found it was not so perfect and complete as could be wish'd; tho' acknowledged greatly superior to any Instrument of a similar kind. Anxious therefore to render it still more worthy the flattering preference it has hitherto obtained, by doing away with the principal inconvenience attached to all Instruments of this class, that if being obliged to TRANSPOSE the Music, E. Light has at length, after much study, various trials, and considerable expense, the pleasure of introducing to the notice of the polite Musical world, the improves BRITISH LUTE-HARP, which my means of a new and simple mechanism (for which E.L. has obtained HIS MAJESTY'S LETTERS PATENT) is now capable of performing Music generally in the ORIGINAL KEYS as set either for the Harp or Piano-Forte, consequently obviating all the inconvenience of transposition &c: at the same time rendering the Instrument more generally useful, and by a new method of stringing and tuning, the tone is now greatly improved, being now more equal, much sweeter, and still nearer the quality of the real Harp. Besides these advantages, it accompanies other Instruments and the voice, with much greater ease and perfection, as by means of the new Ditals it is now capable of modulation from one key into another, with the same facility as the Pedal Harp, for which it will be found to be an excellent substitute, particularly by those Ladies who are in the habit of travelling, either by land or sea, as with all the above mentioned improvements, the size of the Instrument is not at all encreased, still being as portable as the Spanish guitar, tho' infinitely more elegant; in a word, the BRITISH LUTE-HARP is now considered (by judges, and by some of the first Musical Professors who have honored the Patentee with their opinion, and decided approbation of its merits) to be the completest Instrument of its kind ever offered to the notice of the Musical Public."

More on the same webpage:
Edward Light

Light was a guitarist, organist, harpist, inventor and instrument maker in London around 1800. He seems to have died in 1832. Light published "The Art of Playing the Guittar" in 1795, and is generally credited as making the first of what we now call "harp guitars" in 1798. Light invented a series of instruments he called the "diplo-kithara", the "harp-lute," "Dital harp" and the "British Patent Harp-Lute" which all seem to contain variations of the idea of sharping levers on the harp. Light invented a lever mechanism he called the dital which was a button you pressed on the back of the harp that pulled down the string end on the other side, thereby pulling the string against a fret that sharped it. The dital allowed passing accidentals, or could be slid sideways to lock it into place. Here is the front & back view of the dital harp knobs where you can see in the 1st photo that one post is lowered, and the next photo shows the locked dital on the back (the 1st one). The 3rd photo shows the way that a small fretboard was used to accomplish the same job as a sharping lever. He also used a mechanism involving a key that sharped certain strings on some of his instruments.

In the different iterations of these instruments, there are a number of ways in which fretted strings were shortened and even lengthened on his harp-like instruments, many of which had guitar fingerboards in addition to unfretted open bass strings like the harp-guitar. In his patent application on June 18, 1816 he explains the dital mechanism carefully, and also mentions that it also lengthens some of the strings: "another of my improvements, which operates upon the string to increase its vibrating length sufficiently to flatten it a semitone when the button or dital at the back of the instrument is pressed by the thumb..." This is essentially the bass-extension concept, though it uses a different method than the ways bass players accomplish the "lengthening" of the bass string. It may be that Light developed the dital mechanism in order to both flat and sharp a harp string, since the pedals and levers seem to be only capable of sharping by a semi-tone.

Perhaps the Dital was the inspiration for this add-on for gutars (which can lower or raise pitch)"

Author:  Nanohedron [ Fri Dec 28, 2018 8:41 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: The Dital Age

You went to a lot of work there, kkrell. Thanks!

Yes, good old Edward Light. He's the chap who came up with the so-called dital harp in the first place. Here's a pic of one:


Not what I have in mind (and I don't care what Light had the pretension to call it. It's not a harp; it's a lyre, and I think he should have embraced the term, if for no other reason than a harp with ditals could then be called a dital harp - as would only be right. But enough about me). It seems to me that we can rule out Light's button ditals as being exactly the same as the ditals used on the regular harp. Rather than thumb-buttons, with regular harps there has been vague mention of levers involved, in which case that mechanism would have more in common with modern sharping levers, at least in terms of activation. Also, the implication seems to be that the ditals Egan used were already in existence across the Channel, and that he borrowed the technology. It would appear that Light, OTOH, invented at least the thumb button aspect of his mechanism. Aside from that, I'm wondering if the way the string is sharped would be the same between the two. That would make a difference, so it's possible that "dital" might have been a more general term than I suspected and not meant quite the same thing in either one; it might have had even wider use among other instruments. But that's what I'm here to find out, if I can. :)

Mr. Light oversold his device a bit, methinks, in saying that his system was of "the same facility as the Pedal Harp"; you still lose the use of a playing digit while you're pushing a button.

I'm in conference with a harpmaker about this now, as it should happen. All - or at least some - shall in time be revealed!

Author:  Loren [ Sat Dec 29, 2018 6:04 am ]
Post subject:  Re: The Dital Age

Nanohedron wrote: it's possible that "dital" might have been a more general term than I suspected and not meant quite the same thing in either one; it might have had even wider use among other instruments. But that's what I'm here to find out, if I can. :)

So you’ve probably already found this definition on-line, as I did:

“n. In music, a thumb- or finger-key, by which the pitch of a guitar- or lute-string can be temporarily raised a semitone: in contradistinction to pedal, a foot-key.”

Which I take as a general term and would make sense as Ped is the Greek root of the word pedal so then Di as the partial root from the word Digit. My guess is that since the word pedal would have been in common use for a very long time, the first use of Dital was meant to sound syllabically (is that even a word??) as much like Pedal (in English) as possible, which Digital would not - too many syllables, hence Dital.

Also possible I suppose that the first hand or finger device of the sort was operated by 2 fingers or hands, since Di is the root for 2.

I’m going with the former, but I wouldn’t be completely surprised if there’s a more colorful, and possibly more accurate history to the word Dital. Will be interesting to see what your ongoing research turns up Nano.

Author:  Nanohedron [ Sat Dec 29, 2018 2:03 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: The Dital Age

Thanks, Loren. Oddly enough, on my laptop it's been very hard to find definitions (as I mentioned earlier, I'd been herded without compromise toward "digital", "detail", and the like), whereas on my smartphone (is that a dated term now?), sticking to the topic I want and getting the pertinent definitions has been far, far easier. Weird. Anyway, as you've astutely guessed, "dital" refers to fingerly operation, and its root is attributed to the Italian "dito", or finger. "Dital" is indeed a term much like "pedal", and it is potentially just as general-purpose, the difference being that the word has fallen out of whatever use it had and now only lives on tenuously in obscure, geekworthy contexts such as a particular harp mechanism of the past, and novelty instruments such as Edward Light's "dital harp" (my correspondent diplomatically referred to Light as "bored and creative". Be that as it may, Light's instruments can command multiple thousands today. Investors take note).

Nowadays, rather than "dital" we would be more apt to say "toggle", or the like.

So since you're all dying to know, here's what I've gathered so far as regards harps proper (this will be in very general terms and no doubt there will be some errors in the fine points): The dital mechanism is a finger-operated variant of the single-action pedal mechanism, "single" meaning it only works one way, sharping the note; double action can sharpen and flatten, a logical development and the one we see now in current concert pedal harps. If ditals were used for double action I'm as yet unaware of it, but I wouldn't rule it out. What a harp dital mechanism does, then, is sharpen (or possibly also flatten, depending) a particular note across all its octaves in one go - a partial capo, you could say - whereas like sharping levers, Light's mechanisms were individuals, one each per string. Both systems were technically very different, too. Also, harp ditals locked into place. So far I don't know whether Light's buttons had the same capacity, but given that he (like Egan) marketed his instruments to privilege - in this case cultured demoiselles of the upper crust - one assumes Light wouldn't have cut such corners. Back to standing harps, here's a pic of one solution to the goal:


This is a Browne & Buckwell harp, made special in the 1920s for the famous harp professional Mildred Dilling, as I understand; if no one else is still making harps with ditals today, then this was possibly the last of its kind, and probably a revived instrument even that far back. Its form echoes one that Egan often worked with. Here the ditals are the upright thingies you see atop the neck; flip one down and you activate the mechanism, the bulk of which is hidden away inside the neck (my correspondent called it "a task for watchmakers"). Next is an actual Egan harp (and there's that bulbous-headed form again):


As you can see, in this case the ditals are on the post. I'm not 100% clear on whether that was his usual way, but I've seen it on other models of his as well (and up to now wondered what such intrusions were doing there).

While rather spiffy and convenient in its way, the dital system never sustained widespread acceptance on these smaller harps, and the reasons were several: A) With ditals you were limited to the unvaryingly foursquare layout of a note sharpened all across its octaves, whereas individual levers (which I now learn had predated the dital system, which makes sense) could do the same AND you could get wild and do scordatura as well. The dital system couldn't; you would have to manually retune for the purpose. B) The dital mechanism was comparatively clunky and slower in response than the more agile levers when all you might need was a passing accidental; either way, you had to fumble with something. C) It was noisy. D) It was heavy; a smallish harp with a full array of dital mechanisms could weigh as much as 40 lbs, which made the much-touted "portable" aspect open to debate. E) It was very costly: at £30 it was the same price, in that period, as a small rural cottage or a few years' servant's wages, and times were hard and getting harder. Further, I personally would add an F): Let's face it, harp ditals are frankly unattractive to the eye - jutty, odd, and indiscreet. And from an Everyman's standpoint, Egan's post-mounded ditals made the custom of carrying the harp by its curved post a tricky proposition. My correspondent said Egan's genius was in making the mechanism work reliably on such a small instrument.

The technological reversal to individual levers was in the end a sensible choice, I think. Dilling herself went back to them on her smaller harps. Some portable harps don't even have sharping levers these days; a loose comparison would be keyless vs. keyed flutes.

So now you (and I) know! And you can use "dital" with impunity and all confidence (not to mention authority :wink: ) the next time you play Scrabble. :)

Oh, and I still don't yet know how "dital" is pronounced in English. Merriam Webster takes no stand but throws up its hands and suggests "deetle", "dittle", and "dytle" all. Take your pick. I keep saying "dytle", so I think I'll stick with that.

Author:  highland-piper [ Fri Mar 29, 2019 1:57 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: The Dital Age

Neat. I had no idea there were finger-lever harps.

My buddy, who is a Scottish Harp Society of America judge, has carbon fibre strings. They sound incredible. Totally unrelated to the subject of ditals, obviously, but another example of technology applied to harp.

Author:  Nanohedron [ Fri Mar 29, 2019 4:34 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: The Dital Age

Yes, synthetic strings open up a whole new realm. I'm new to this, so I don't have a grip on it all yet, but I understand that some harps will even have different types of synthetics for bass, mid-range and high courses. There can be a lot to keep track of, including choosing from a range from heavy to light tension, and not only string composition, but its diameter in relation to its length, etc. etc., which will affect not only its sound, but how it performs for one's needs as well.

I suppose once you get settled into it, fielding much of this stuff becomes closer to second nature.

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