When we went to Boston this weekend and more specifically the Paul Revere House, we were treated to a Glass Harmonica concert. I had never seen such an instrument. I did know about playing glasses. I was originally treated to this at my junior prom. After the prom, my date played the glasses for my parents. I was, of course, in awe. But it never crossed my mind that such an "instrument" could be improved, but apparently Benjamin Franklin took one look at people playing crystal glasses and thought, "this can be done better". He ordered the stems be cut off and stacked them on a cork axle so that they could rotate as opposed to the player's hand. In this harmonica's case the gold rings help to identify sharps and flats, similar to the black keys on a piano. This change in design also meant that water did not have to be in every glass to make different tones, but instead could be added to the player's hands instead.
The woman playing did a wonderful job. She started with some Japanese music and moved into some more traditional fair. She joked that music for this instrument ranged from the obscure to the very obscure.
One of the people in the audience asked why was it named a harmonica since it looked so little like a harmonica. Her response was that actually, it was the other way around. Why were harmonicas (the one that people blow into) named as such since they looked nothing like harmonicas (i.e. Benjamin Franklin's device). Actually, Harmonicas are named after the Italian word "harmony" for the beautiful, ethereal, haunting quality of sound that it emits.
Here is a link to some information / activities to learn more about the glass harmonica: