Great Moments in Instrument Innovation: The Spit Valve

The biggest problem with most wind instruments is, of course, that one must blow into them to make them work. Apart from the rather distasteful act of repeatedly putting such an instrument in or on your mouth no matter where you’ve had it previously, there is the rather problematic fact that one’s, shall we say, expectorations will inevitably accumulate within said instrument. Except in the case of the bird whistle, this is generally regarded as a bad thing.

How bad it can be is demonstrated by the case of the Royal Trumpet Corp of 1497, who were told they could not participate in the feast laid out before them until after they had performed. The sights and aromas of the banquet were so profound that their herald trumpets gathered many pints of saliva during the performance, resulting in the drowning of the whole corp. Henry VII was so appalled at the disruption of his meal that he had all four of the corpses beheaded writing, “Furely, the feafts of the crown are fuch that the provifion of mufic can be difpenfed with henceforth.”

The mufician’s… er, musician’s guild realized that if they were to keep their sweet jobs, they needed to find some way to remedy the problem. This was resolved by the invention of the spit valve.


Alexander Spitt, trumpet maker and ren fair enthusiast

Invented in 1498 by trumpet maker Alexander Spitt, the Spitt Valve was regarded as revolutionary, especially by people who were easily impressed. With the mere depression of a lever, a hole was opened in the body of the instrument which allowed the drainage of any accumulated bodily fluids that might find their way into it. The response by the instrument makers of Europe was universal: “Ew. Gross.”

Over the years, instrument makers have experimented with these valves, adjusting their location and number. It isn’t commonly known today, but the invention of the saxophone in the 19th century was the result of covering an instrument from top to bottom with a huge variety of complex spit valves. The jury is still out on whether or not this was a good idea.

The importance of this addition to the instrument maker’s craft can be demonstrated by the fact that there hasn’t been a drowning during a performance in centuries. However, the rate of decapitations following performances has remained unchanged.


Note: The veracity of the events in this article is open to some debate, assuming you have nothing better to do.