Adolphe Sax – How To Invent An Instrument
Muse Science Magazine for Kids|May/June 2021
The story of the saxophone
By Jeremy A. Wall

THE YEAR: 1841

THE PLACE: Exposition de L’Industrie Belge (The Belgium Industrial Fair)

Adolphe Sax stands over the wreckage, running a hand down his thick beard.

His prototype is ruined.

It was no accident. A boot kick from some rival competitor had dented and deformed the delicate metal. The massive brass instrument with a clarinet-like mouthpiece would have blown the judges away. Now it can’t even make a sound.

Furious, even after his other instruments win second prize, Adolphe storms out of the fair. I’ll go to Paris, he thinks. I’ll win bigger prizes. I’ll show them all..

STEP 1

Survive Childhood.

Seems like a no-brainer, but for the oldest son of Charles and Maria Sax, this was no easy task.

Antoine-Joseph was born on November 6, 1814 in Dinat, Belgium. By age ten, he had accidentally drunk poison, fallen out of a three-story window, drunk poison again, blown himself up in a gunpowder mishap, drunk some more poison, and nearly drowned in a river. Antoine-Joseph escaped death so many times that people started calling him “the Ghost.” The nickname stuck, even if his birth name did not. Antoine-Joseph Sax preferred to be called Adolphe.

STEP 2

Learn a Skill. Get Confident.

When he wasn’t blowing himself up or gulping poison, Adolphe the Ghost spent his time learning to play music and studying the family business. Adolphe’s father Charles was one of Belgium’s premier instrument makers.

At age 14, Adolphe enrolled at the Royal School of Singing, studying flute, clarinet, and yes, singing. He became an excellent clarinetist, but it was the design of instruments that interested him most. In 1830, when he was just 15, he entered two flutes and a clarinet made out of ivory in the Belgium Industrial Fair. This was a huge exhibition in which inventors competed for the gold medal. Serious bragging rights were at stake. Five years later, Adolphe won honorable mention.

By 27, Adolphe was known as a talented musician who could play almost any instrument well. Working alongside his dad, Adolphe had redesigned the bass clarinet, changing it from an unplayable tube of wood to a more modern instrument fit for the symphony. Soon he had the attention of famous composers, including Hector Berlioz, a big shot from France.

Adolphe’s confidence grew with his abilities. He developed a habit of challenging his competitors to musical showdowns in public places—which he would win. This made him something of a celebrity, but not exactly popular with other musicians and instrument makers.

STEP 3

Identify a Problem.

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