The autoharp is a musical stringed instrument having a series of chord bars attached to dampers which, when depressed, mute all the strings other than those that form the desired chord. Despite its name, the autoharp is not a harp at all, but a chorded zither.
There is debate over the origin of the autoharp. A German immigrant in Philadelphia by the name of Charles F. Zimmermann was awarded US patent 257808 in 1882 for a design for a musical instrument that included mechanisms for muting certain strings during play. He named his invention the “autoharp”. Unlike later autoharps, the shape of the instrument was symmetrical, and the felt-bearing bars moved horizontally against the strings instead of vertically. It is not known if Zimmermann ever commercially produced any instruments of this early design. Karl August Gütter of Markneukirchen, Germany, had built a model that he called a “Volkszither” which most resembles the autoharp played today. Gütter obtained a British patent for his instrument circa 1883-1884. Zimmermann, after returning from a visit to Germany, began production of the Gütter design in 1885 but with his own design patent number and catchy name. Gütter’s instrument design became very popular and Zimmermann has often been mistaken as the inventor.
The term “autoharp” was registered as a trademark in 1926. The word is currently claimed as a trademark by U.S. Music Corporation, whose Oscar Schmidt division manufactures autoharps. The USPTO registration, however, covers only a “Mark Drawing Code (5) WORDS, LETTERS, AND/OR NUMBERS IN STYLIZED FORM” and has expired.
In litigation with George Orthey, it was held that Oscar Schmidt could only claim ownership of the stylized lettering of the word autoharp, the term itself having moved into general usage. As a consequence, for instance, Autoharp Quarterly is able to register its own mark using the word autoharp in its generic sense, and Orthey instruments (and other manufacturers) can market their instruments as “autoharps”.