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The saxophone was developed circa 1840 by Adolphe, a Belgian-born instrument-maker, flautist, and clarinetist working in Paris. Although he had constructed saxophones in several sizes by the early 1840s, he did not receive a 15-year patent for the instrument until June 28, 1846. It was first officially revealed to the public in the presentation of the bass saxophone in C at an exhibition in Brussels in 1841. Sax also gave private showings to Parisian musicians in the early 1840s. He drew up plans for 14 different types of saxophones, but they were not all realized.

The inspiration for the instrument is unknown, but there is good evidence that fitting a clarinet mouthpiece to an ophicleide is the most likely origin (Sax built ophicleides among other instruments in the late 1830s). Doing so results in an instrument with a definitely saxophone-like sound. The Hungarian/Romanian tarogato, which is quite similar to a soprano saxophone, has also been speculated to have been an inspiration. However, this cannot be so, as the modern tarogato with a single-reed mouthpiece was not developed until the 1890s, long after the saxophone had been invented.

Sax's intent, which was plainly stated in his writings, was to invent an entirely new instrument which could provide bands and orchestras with a bass to the woodwind and brass sections, capable of more refined performance than the ophicleide, but with enough power to be used outdoors. In short, Sax intended to harness the finesse of a woodwind with the power of a brass instrument. However, as Sax often offended rival instrument manufacturers, the resulting prejudice toward the man and his instruments led to the saxophone not being used in orchestral groups. For a long time, it was relegated to military bands, despite Sax's great friendship with the influential Parisian composer Hector Berlioz.

For the duration of the patent (1846-1866), only the Sax factory could legally manufacture or modify the instruments, although this and Sax's numerous other patents were routinely breached by his rivals. After the patent expired in 1866, many different manufacturers introduced competing models, including many different modifications to Sax's original design.

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