Adolphe must have been the most unfortunate boy ever. He was certainly the most accident-prone. His mother concluded that he was “condemned to misfortune” and concluded that “he won’t live.”
It seemed as if nature knew that this seemingly innocent boy would grow up to invent something so utterly horrifying and threatening that mobs would demand his death.
Who was this unfortunate boy who was condemned to misfortune, and what monstrosity did he grow up to create?
Adolphe was born in Belgium with the name Antoine-Joseph in 1814. No one is entirely sure why he took on the name Adolphe. Perhaps the record would be a bit more clear if his family wasn’t perpetually seeking medical help to keep the boy alive.
The first serious brush with death happened when he was 3 years old and fell three flights of stairs. The fall ended ingloriously when upon reaching the stone floor, where he smacked his head. Some reports say he was in a coma for a week. While this is disputed, it is clear that he was badly hurt and was unable to leave his bed or stand properly for several days.
Another unpleasant incident occurred when he was 10. He fell onto a hot stove, receiving serious burns on his side. Although he survived, he carried scars for the rest of his life.
The same year as the stove incident, Adolphe fell into a river. No one saw this happen, and the accident wasn’t noticed until a passerby happened to see him downriver, floating facedown and unconscious. The stranger plucked Adolphe from the water and helped him regain consciousness.
The stories of his childhood brushes with death are so numerous that one wonders why his parents ever let them out of his sight. Included in his horrifying childhood were such incidents as:
- Drinking a bowl full of acidic water, mistaking it for milk;
- Swallowing a pin;
- Multiple incidents of accidental poisoning and near-asphyxiation from sleeping in a room where varnished furniture was drying;
- Getting thrown across his father’s workshop by an explosion of gunpowder; and
- Getting knocked out when a large slate tile fell off the roof of a building, landing squarely on the boy’s head.
Understandably, Adolphe gained a bit of a reputation around town. His neighbors half-jokingly referred to him as “the ghost-child from Dinant.”
Despite such a difficult childhood, Adolphe managed to survive to adulthood. His bright and inquisitive mind led him to start experimenting and inventing.
He came by this naturally. His parents were amateur inventors and had come up with several notable improvements to existing inventions. Adolphe wanted to make something entirely new for which he could claim all the credit. He had an idea for an invention that he knew would have profound use in the military.
The ramifications of his invention were instantly apparent to others within his profession, and what they saw filled them with fear. One such person tried to nip Adolphe’s efforts in the bud by kicking the prototype, making it unworkable.
When Adolphe was undeterred, his rivals took to every means possible to prevent him from succeeding. Respected members of his profession wrote newspaper articles besmirching his name. Others brought lawsuits, attempting to block the development of Adolphe’s invention. Others organized efforts to boycott the purchase and use of the hated device. At one point, his workshop inexplicably caught fire, although criminal intent was unproven.
Opposition to Adolphe reached such a frenzy that it became organized. An “Anti-Adolphe” entity was formed, although it officially went by a different name. It elected officers, collected dues, and adopted bylaws. Its primary purpose, despite the formalities, was to do anything to oppose Adolphe and prevent him from unleashing his mad invention upon the world.
The Anti-Adolphe organization filed patent-infringement lawsuits against him, claiming that Adolphe had stolen the design for his invention from others. To do this, they fabricated similar models and presented them to the courts, claiming they had been invented long before Adolphe ever thought of his mad scheme. Although initially successful in this endeavor, the ruse was ultimately discovered, forcing the organization to pursue different strategies.
Although it felt as if the whole world was against him, Adolphe did have a few supporters. One of them wrote in 1843, lamenting,
“It is scarcely to be believed that [Adolphe] should be finding it difficult to maintain his position and make a career in Paris. The persecutions he suffers are worthy of the Middle Ages and recall the antics of the enemies of Benvenuto, the Florentine sculptor. They lure away his workmen, steal his designs, accuse him of insanity, and bring legal proceedings against him. Such is the hatred inventors inspire in rivals who are incapable of inventing anything themselves.”
Adolphe was undeterred, however. He went to Paris and immediately pursued his goal of selling his invention to the French military. He was certain his ingenuity would revolutionize the country’s armed forces.
It was at this point that the man who had eluded death so often as a child again came face-to-face with it. When the Anti-Adolphe organization found itself unsuccessful in court, it hired thugs to give Adolphe severe beatings, trying to get him to stop. When that tactic failed, the organization even attempted to assassinate the hated inventor. Even this drastic measure failed.
Ultimately, Adolphe succeeded in convincing Napoleon III to supply France’s military with the notorious creation of his mind. Beginning with Napoleon’s household troops, France’s army adopted Adolphe’s device and used it to gain the world’s respect.
What was this hated device that was so feared by Adolphe’s peers? This is how it was described by one authority:
“It cries, sighs, and dreams. It possesses a crescendo and can gradually diminish its sound until it is only an echo of an echo of an echo- until its sound becomes crepuscular… The timbre…has something vexing and sad about it in the high register; the low notes to the contrary are of a grandiose nature, one could say pontifical. For works of a mysterious and solemn character, [it] is, in my mind, the most beautiful low voice known to this today.”
Confused? Perhaps it would help to note that this description was written by the same man who wrote that letter that lamented the way Adolphe had been persecuted. He was the French composer Louis-Hector Berlioz. We mention this because his status as one of the greatest composers in history certainly makes him a compelling authority to speak to Adolphe’s invention.
The hated device that drove so many to fear and loathe Adolphe was a musical instrument. It was so different from any that had come before it that rival instrument makers feared they would be driven to bankruptcy by being unable to offer the public anything like it. It was such an amazing departure from traditional musical instruments that when France’s military began using it for ceremonial functions, the whole world took notice.
The hated, feared, and world-changing product that nearly killed its inventor is something you have heard, possibly without knowing how much effort was placed in preventing its release. You know it by the name given to it by its inventor, Adolphe Sax: the saxophone.