Lyon & Healy harps are among the most widely-played in the world by professional musicians, in part because Lyon & Healy has remained one of the few manufacturers of high-quality harps for orchestras, also known as "concert harps" or "pedal harps", in the world. In addition, Lyon & Healy has also made more affordable, smaller versions of the concert harp, known as folk harps (based on traditional Irish instruments) and lever harps (which use levers to change the pitch of the string rather than pedals), which have helped to popularize the instrument. More recently, in 2003, Lyon & Healy also began the manufacture of electroacoustic harps.
The company was founded by two men originally from Boston, George W. Lyon and Patrick J. Healy. Originally, Lyon & Healy had been sent to Chicago to start a sheet music shop for the Boston music publisher, Oliver Ditson, but by the mid-1870s, they had branched into making musical instruments, including harps—the instrument for which they are best known today. Previously, most harps in North America had been made in France, England, Ireland, or Italy by smaller groups of craftsmen. Noticing that they were servicing a number of harps for repair, Lyon & Healy decided to research the development of a North American harp. Some have suggested their work was based on Sébastien Érard's harps. Their first harp was completed in 1889.
In 1895, Lyon & Healy introduced the Style 23 Harp, which is still one of the most popular and recognizable designs in the world. It has 47 strings, highly decorative floral carving on the top of the column, base, and feet, and has a fleur de lis pattern at the bottom of the column. In many orchestras, patrons may see the harpist playing a gold version of this harp. It is 74 inches tall, or 187 cm, and weighs about 37kg or 81 pounds. Lyon & Healy also produces one of the most ornate and elaborate harps in the world, the Louis XV, which includes carvings of leaves, flowers, scrolls, and shells along its neck and kneeblock, as well the soundboard edges.
By the 1900s, Lyon & Healy was one of the largest music publishers in the world, and was producing violins, pianos, organs, and other instruments. In the 1930s, Lyon & Healy was the first retailer in the world to sell upright pianos, a "vertical" piano designed to take up less space in newer, smaller homes, and to be sold for far less than the traditional grand piano. However, by the 1970s, Lyon & Healy decided to concentrate solely on the creation and sale of harps.
In 1928, Lyon and Healy introduced one of the most unusual harps ever designed for mass production, the Salzedo Model, designed in collaboration with the harpist Carlos Salzedo. It is in the Art Deco style, incorporating bold red and white lines on the soundboard to create a stylized and distinct instrument that still appears modern and bold even today.
In the 1960s, Lyon & Healy introuced a smaller lever harp, the Troubadour, a 36-string harp that is a much more afforable version of their larger harps, designed for young beginners (who have smaller hands and may find playing a concert harp difficult) and hobbyists. This harp stands 65.5 inches, or 166 cm and weighs 17 kg. By 1985, Lyon & Healy was also making folk harps, also known as "Irish harps", which are even smaller than the Troubador. The Shamrock model folk harp has 34 strings, stands 55 inches or 144 cm tall (with its legs; the legs can also be removed if the player wishes to play lap-style on the knees, although this makes playing much more difficult and can only be done by the tallest players), and weighs about 10 kg. It has celtic designs on the soundboard, evocative of the Book of Kells, which are not painted on but rather are usual decals placed on to the finished soundboard. Those who play the smaller Irish or folk harps are often referred to as "harpers" rather than the more formal "harpist" title which is used for players of concert or pedal harps. The most famous of the wandering Irish bards, was the blind harper O'Carolan. In the late 70's Lyon & Healy was purchased by CBS, and consequently closed all of the retail stores in the Chicago area that had been selling sheet music, musical instruments and their education departments. Focusing on the Harp only division.
Over time, the location of the research and design teams alongside long-time harp craftsmen (many of whom have been producing harps for decades at Lyon & Healy) has allowed Lyon & Healy to perfect methods that have allowed for the mass-production of harps to which can be added many of the special qualities of individually produced harps-- such as carved columns, gold-leaf work, hand-painted sound boards, and other artistic inlays. The wood used for harp production varies by instrument, but the most common wood used for the soundboard, which is essential to a harp's ability to resonate and produce the warm sound the instrument is famous for, is Sitka Spruce (Picea sitchensis)
Joanna Newsom plays a Lyons and Healy style 15 11-pedal harp.Lyon & Healy harps are still located in Chicago, Illinois, at 168 North Ogden Avenue. The building was once home to the recording studios of Orlando R. Marsh.