It is reported to have been invented in 1817 and patented in 1821 by French instrument maker Jean Hilaire Asté (also known as Halary or Haleri). It was the structural cornerstone of the brass section of the Romantic orchestra, replacing the serpent, a Renaissance instrument which was thought to be outdated. Its long tubing bends back on itself. It is played with a cupped mouthpiece similar to brass instruments generally. It originally had nine keys, later expanded to as many as twelve keys, covering the large tone holes. The various members of the ophicleide family may be pitched in B♭, C, E♭, or F. The most common member is the bass ophicleide pitched in B♭ or C.
It was first scored for in the opera Olimpie by Gaspare Spontini in 1819. Other famous works which use the ophicleide are Felix Mendelssohn's Elias and Overture to A Midsummer Night's Dream as well as Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique, though originally scored to include both an ophicleide and a serpent. Verdi and Wagner also composed for the ophicleide.
The ophicleide was eventually succeeded by the tuba and euphonium, although it remained popular in Italy until the early twentieth century and it is still played professionally to this day. One of the last great ophicleide players was Sam Hughes. The instrument was also one of the direct ancestors of the saxophone, as it was reported that Adolphe Sax, while repairing an ophicleide one time, put a woodwind mouthpiece on the instrument and liked the sound, leading to the saxophone's later creation.
The instrument's name comes from the Greek words for "serpent" and "keys", since it was conceived of as a serpent with keys. Like the serpent it was difficult to play and had a somewhat unpredictable sound, leading to the doggerel:
The ophicleide, like the keyed bugle and quinticlave (the other two members of its 'family') has a fingering system like no other wind instrument. All keys except one are normally closed, opening only when a finger presses the associated key lever. Just below the bell is the largest of the key-covered tone holes, but this one is normally open, closing only when the lever is pressed. On an ophicleide in C, this normally open tone hole IS the acoustic bell, with the bell itself having little effect on sound or pitch, and the sound produced with no key levers pressed is a C. If the player presses the lever for this normally open tone hole, that hole is closed and now air column extends past this hole up to the bell, lowering the pitch by one half step to B (On a B-flat instrument, the "all fingers off" pitch is B-flat, and with the normally open hole closed the pitch is lowered to A). In general, the player can obtain all the "partial" pitches available for a given air column length. To play a higher series of partials, he opens one of the normally closed tone holes, effectively making that hole the "bell" of the instrument, with a corresponding shorter air column and higher series of pitches. The left hand controls three such tone holes plus the normally open one below the bell. Most pitches over the range of the instrument can be obtained by using only the left hand's set of tone holes, and the right hand can hold and stabilize the instrument. At the point where the air column is shortened by opening all of the left hand tone holes, there comes a difficult couple of notes that can best be played by continuing to shorten the air column with two fingers of the right hand, before the series of partials "wraps" and the left hand is used again for another set of notes. This repeats until about one half octave in the lowest register, where the pitches cannot be obtained very well using the holes closer to the bell, whether left or right hand controlled. For these few notes only, the other fingers of the right hand can open a few more tone holes that are relatively closer to the mouthpiece than to the bell. With the exception of these special few pitches in the low octave, the combinations of partials on various sets of opened tone holes results in the left hand fingers going through something very similar to what they would be doing to manipulate the valves on a modern brass instrument. This system is very unlike any other key-and-tone-hole instruments, including woodwinds (and especially unlike saxophones).