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Deagan History


History of Deagan, Part 1 (1880-1916)

To understand the history of the J.C. Deagan Company is to learn about the entrepreneurial man behind the namesake. In our three-part series The History of Deagan, we explore the life of John Calhoun Deagan, whose interests in mathematics, physics, music and the science of acoustics, changed and shaped the world of music and percussion.

John Calhoun Deagan was born November 6, 1851 in Hector, Tompkins County, New York. He was the son of Irish immigrants Michael and Mary Deagan. Shortly after his birth, the Deagan family moved to Syracuse, New York, and later to Youngstown, Ohio, when he was nearing five years old.

The eldest of 10 siblings, J.C. Deagan went to public schools in Youngstown and attended Raines College. He was trained on clarinet and was nationally recognized as an outstanding concert clarinetist by the age of twenty. In 1871, he enlisted in the US Navy and was stationed on the USS Brooklyn. His ship was home ported in England, which allowed him to study music at the University of London. He attended a series of lectures by German physicist, Hermann von Helmholtz, whose principles of acoustics aroused Deagan's interest in the science of sound. By 1876, Deagan was discharged from the Navy and returned to Youngstown as a carriage painter. He found work as an orchestra leader at Niblo's Garden and at Tony Pastor's in New York. Soon after, he left Youngstown for St. Louis, Missouri, where he became established as a musician, teacher and music arranger. He served as the Orchestra Director at the Opera House in St. Louis and played in numerous theatre orchestras, bands and in open-air concerts. He soon became one of the highest paid musicians in America. 

John Calhoun Deagan's obsession with intonation would soon set him on a course from musician to manufacturer, innovator and internationally respected entrepreneur. In 1880, Deagan produced his first instrument, a scientifically designed and perfectly tuned glockenspiel. It all began, as the story tells, when a theatre orchestra, which Deagan performed with, introduced a glockenspiel for a unique tonal effect in performance. The present day glockenspiel was a crude instrument, virtually untuned. It was used as a toy for children to imitate, in miniature form, the large practice claviers used by carilloneuers in Europe's cathedrals. Although it had been in use since Mozart's time, it was regarded more as a sound effect than a musical instrument. The discordant sounds rasping from the bars offended Deagan's sensitive ears, so he offered to improve upon the instrument. He applied his intense study of the Helmholtz principles by filing and grinding the steel bars until the tuning was balanced across the scale range. He also integrated his knowledge of physics to design a method of attaching the bars to the support frame for greater sound projection. Within a few months, word spread throughout the music community about his achievement and J. C. Deagan was now spending as much time producing musical bells as he was fulfilling performance dates. Inadvertently, J. C. Deagan began his one-man operation on 1004 Market Street, St. Louis, Missouri. The year was 1880.

You can read more about the History of Deagan in our three-part series available in our Quarterly.

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