Some experts believe instruments like the hammered dulcimer have been played in the Mid-East for 5000 years; some think it was developed in Persia around 900 AD; and some are convinced it arose in Europe 650 to 700 years ago, when new drawn wire technology allowed for stronger strings than the gut and beaten wire available earlier. In any case, the design spread widely across Eurasia. The playing method of striking the strings with “hammers” may have helped give rise to the modern piano.
Hammered dulcimer virtuosa Beverly Woods generously got me started with a loner instrument she built. I eventually got my own instrument as a Leo 16/15 kit (sadly, no longer available) from the Song of the Sea music shop (now an online store only) in Bar Harbor, Maine in the late 1980s. It has served me well busking in Portland, Maine, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and in Boston, Massachusetts.
For more info:
- A popular introduction to the instrument by Dizzi Dulcimer
- Encyclopedia Smithsonian‘s article on the history
- This page, by Rick Davis of Cute Dog Music, challenges the idea that the instrument dates from antiquity.
- This piece from the Kansas Historical Society’s Kansapedia includes an historical perspective on the instrument in the US.