Deagan Una-Fon – “The Deagan Una-Fon has brass band volume to attract the crowd – and the quality of tone to hold it.” So reads the boldfaced slogan at the top of an article describing the benefits of buying your very own Deagan Una-Fon. Built in the 1920’s, the Deagan Una-Fon electric glockenspiel xylophone is an electromechanical musical instrument that uses orchestra bells played by a system of solenoids and beaters that are activated with a keyboard. Each beater has a mallet that is activated by a solenoid corresponding to a note on the keyboard. The beater strikes the orchestra bell bar. They can be configured to play with a single strike or with reiteration such that the striker will hit the bar several times per second if the key is held down. The bell bars have a unique concave scalloped shape, and each note’s fundamental is amplified by a resonator mounted behind the bar. As a result of this and of the hardness of the beaters, the tone is very loud and yet has a clear timbre. The higher-pitched bars are similar to those on a 1.5”-wide set of Deagan Parsifals, but scalloped in order to increase the sensitivity of the bells. Una-Fons were most popularly used in parades, similar to calliopes.
John Calhoun (J.C.) Deagan was born in Hector, New York in 1853. Steam power was used quite efficiently to operate machinery when he was a boy, but by the time he reached adulthood he saw the power and potential of electricity. A professional clarinetist, he became fascinated with percussion and came up with a way to scientifically tune glockenspiels (metal xylophones) and organ chimes.
In 1880, Deagan created the first scientifically tuned glockenspiel. He did extensive research on the quality of the sound that different woods created, and discovered that Honduras Redwood was ideal for xylophone and marimba production. The xylophones he sold produced a very distinctive and strong sound that became essential for many orchestras. He also made the marimba a popular instrument in America.
In 1898, he built his own factory in Chicago and called it the J.C. Deagan Musical Bells, Inc. There, he produced numerous types of mallet-using percussion instruments, including the Una-Fon, which is an electric device played with a keyboard – like a piano. Instead of making music by having little hammers strike strings, music is made when metal mallets hit metal bells of different sizes. Along with the keyboard, they also can work off of paper rolls. These unusual devices are uncommon survivors of a different era. Unfortunately, the Deagan name is rarely remembered today outside of the world of percussion, although the influence of this unique man continues through the contributions he made to the enjoyment and production of music.
During 1910, Deagan convinced the American Federation of Musicians to adopt A=440 as the standard universal pitch for orchestras and bands. It remains the standard to this day.
In 1912, the Deagan Building in Chicago was touted as the largest factory built to produce musical instruments in the world at the time.
During his career, Deagan received numerous patents for musical tuning, manufacturing processes, and construction of musical instruments. He also inspired numerous musical pieces to compliment his instruments. He is also accredited with popularizing the xylophone, organ chimes, aluminum chimes, aluminum harp, Swiss handbells, and orchestra bells. He turned the marimba from a jungle novelty into an accepted instrument.
Upon J.C. Deagan’s death, his daughter-in-law Ella Smith Deagan, wife of his son Jefferson Claude Deagan, took control of the family business. She remained in charge until her own children, Jack Deagan and Jane Deagan Evans, took over. They sold it to the Slingerland Company in 1978, who then sold it to the Sanlar Corporation in 1984. Deagan glockenspiels and chimes are currently marketed by the Yamaha Corporation.