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History of The Piano

  Who invented the piano? History of the piano tells us that Bartolomeo Cristofori of Italy is said to have invented the instrument. He had a great knowledge of stringed keyboard instruments. Particularly the harpsichord, since he was a harpsichord maker. Cristofori built his first piano around 1700, but no one seems to know for sure the exact year. Possibly earlier, or maybe even a little later. History as it seems is not always written down as it happens.

  The only surviving Cristofori pianos are from the 1720's. He did not invent the stringed keyboard. This happened much earlier, and some authorities may not even consider him the actual inventor of the piano. So, is history right to claim that he invented the piano? Yes. His important contribution was the piano action. This is a large part of what makes a piano a piano.

  The action is the inside moving parts that set directly on the keys and when a key is struck sends the hammer forward to strike the strings. The important idea here is that this mechanism then releases to allow the hammer to come back in place allowing the player to quickly play another note. This escapement, or releasing of the hammer for quick repetition was not possible before Bartolomeo came up with the idea.

  So yes while he did not actually invent the entire piano, he did come up with one of the most important principles that makes up a piano. The escapement or "let off" as it's called by piano techs. And he had no example to follow but his own. His work then became a model for the many piano makers that followed, once his invention became widely known around 1711. Of course many improvements had to be made. His invention was far from perfect.

  As the instrument improved, pianoforte making began to enjoy great success throughout Europe in the mid to late 1700's. On the Viennese keyboards that Mozart composed with, the black keys were white and the white keys were black! Opposite fron the way we know them. Early keyboards were only 5 octaves(60 or 61 keys). By 1820 pianos had 7 octaves(85 keys). By the late 1800's nearly all had 88 keys as they have now.

  Throughout the early to middle eighteen hundreds piano building changed tremendously. One thing that forced this change was the fact that pianists and composers put a great demand on builders to produce a better and stronger instrument. Power, strength, tone and sustaining were the main concerns. So the sound and action began to slowly improve.

  Also the steel industry started producing higher quality piano wire along with better casting for the iron plates or frame. All these improvements happened over about a 150 year period. Other inventions in history that greatly improved the piano was the repetition lever in grand actions. This lever means that a properly regulated grand piano action will repeat with much quicker repetition than an upright action will.

  The repetition grand action, also called double escapement action, was invented in the early 1800's. This was a very important addition to the grand piano action. Around the same time the agraffe(used mostly in grands) and pressure bar(mostly in uprights) were invented. Now remember, Cristofori invented the basic ecsapement idea. 


  More improvements were a stronger one piece cast iron plate, felt hammers instead of leather, 3 string unisons in the treble, sostenuto pedal and over stringing. Much earlier, Gottfried Silbermann had invented the damper pedal, also called the sustain pedal. Some types of pianos that are no longer being made are the square grands built from the early to late 1800's, and the birdcage pianos built roughly during the same time period. Two poorly made types of pianos inside. Yet often the square and birdcage styles had very beautiful and ornate cases. This fact makes them only useful as antiques to look at.

  The birdcage action was a European style. The squares were made in America and Europe. Modern grand and upright pianos reached their present form by the later part of the 1800's. As you can see, much of the early development was in Europe. As the instrument became more and more popular in the US, American makers also contributed to it's further development. For instance Steinway in New York greatly added to the improvement of the piano.

  In the early twentieth century there were probably hundreds of piano builders in the United States. Chicago and New York alone accounted for a huge number of factories. The very large uprights were built during this time. Spinet pianos (36" tall) were introduced in America in the mid 1930's and featured a drop action. Nothing new in a spinet except that the action is more compact and the sticker that hooks to the keys is inverted(dropped). The console (40" tall) also came out at about the the same time.

  Consoles have a direct blow action. Meaning that it sits right on top of the keys. And was also more compact than the old large uprights. The studio size had already been around since roughly 1920. And was probably not yet referred to as a studio piano until the 1930's. Terms such as midget were used to represent the studio size, which was about 44" to 46" tall. It also has a direct blow action.

  Realize that before spinets, consoles and studios, all verticals were at least 48" high or taller. Currently (2011) no one in the US makes a spinet piano anymore. To my knowledge Europe and Asia have also dropped production of spinets. Their time in piano history was just less than 70 years. Goodby spinets. Maybe it's for the best? After all the final price tags on some spinets over 10 years ago was around $3500.

  New console and studio sales numbers have dropped in recent years. New grands being a lot more popular, at least in America. Although lately sales of grands has also dipped. In China new vertical sales numbers are much higher. For the most part, development of any new innovations in piano forte making stopped a long time ago. This means that for over 100 years now this instrument has stayed basically the same. Only features have changed. Who knows what the future history holds for The Piano.


History Of The Piano in America

  Since the piano was invented in Europe around 1700, that makes it over 300 years old. "Pianoforte" is what early pianos were called. In 1775, John Behrent of Philadelphia built the first American piano. In the 1700's America imported its pianos from Europe. The imported pianos did not hold up well  to the American climate.

  Imports, of course, were quite expensive, which means that mostly only the wealthy could afford pianos back then. As the U.S. industry grew, less instruments were being imported by the early 1800's. By around 1860 over 20,000 pianos a year were being made in the U.S., most of them in northern cities, half of them in New York.

  European production at that time was much greater. Most of our U.S. production was more affordable than imports. Of course some pianos such as Steinway have always been a little more expensive than the average or mid-grade instruments. By 1911 around 360,000 pianos a year were made in America. Actually from the turn of the century 1900 thru the mid 1920's production stayed quite high.

  This time period represents one of the greatest and most productive in the history of American piano making. Remember there were hundreds of makers in the United States during that time. All of those big tall heavy old upright pianos you have all seen over the years were made during that time. When I started tuning in 1976, there were still a lot of these pianos around that were even made in the late 1800's.

  There were also a lot of grands made , but back then more uprights were sold. In recent times more grands than uprights are being sold. In 35 years I have seen and worked on so many of these old beauties, that it seems as if there is an inexhaustible supply. Of course that's not true. If you take 350,000 pianos a year and multiply that by 25 years (I'm counting 1900 thru 1925) you get almost 9 million. That is still a bunch of pianos!

  Realize, that this is just an estimate. Some years the production was less due to the economy, war, and various other factors. Still, that was a very productive era for piano making in America. During the depression and WWII, production dropped. Such annual production numbers were not seen again until the 1960's and 70's. By now(2011), a huge number of those old pianos have been lost in a fire, junked by music stores, dropped off a truck, or left in the garage to rot.

  In the 1920's the radio and phonograph hurt piano sales and then the Great Depression of 1929 wiped out a lot of piano companies. For a few years in the 1930's annual sales numbers in America dropped below 100,000 pianos. Possibly as low as 50,000 or 60,000 during the early 30's. During World War II production almost stopped entirely. Only 2 or 3 piano manufacturers built pianos during WWII. Steinway and Gulbransen were 2 of them.

  By the late 1940's and early 1950's production and sales were about 150,000 a year, to over 200,000 a year by the mid 1960's. In the late 1960's and early 1970's the U.S. was again making around 300,000 pianos or more per year. These annual U.S production numbers began to drop throughout the nineteen eighties and nineties. At this time(2011) US production is lower than it's been in over 200 years.

  In the 60's and 70's Asian makers such  as Yamaha and Kawai were exporting pianos to America. At this point we stop talking about just pianos "made in America". Foreign sales numbers were steadily increasing. Let's look at all these numbers. Estimate that around 200,000 average were made in the U.S. from 1950 to 1995. That's about 8 or 9 million. Add that to the 9 million I estimated in the early 1900's.

  Let's just add only 500,000 to represent the great depression and WWII time period. That's about 18 million pianos made in America over a one hundred year period. And I sure doubt that this estimate is off by 2 or 3 million either way. Even if this number seems high, then add all American piano production still around from the 1800's. There's a boat load of pianos in America. Don't forget. I did not count all the Asian and European pianos imported since the 1960's.

  That could account for easily another 4 million pianos. If we estimate on the low side, that represents at least 20 million pianos in the U.S. I like to estimate low on the number of instruments still around , because remember earlier I said that many old pianos have already been junked or destroyed. So my guess is around 25% have been lost.

  That still leaves about 15 million used pianos that are still out there. I assure you that right now in almost every city and town in America you can easily find a few used pianos being sold or given away every day of the week. Currently in America(2011) annual production is probably less than 5000 a year.

  Annual sales of new instruments (including foreign made) is well under 100,000. This number as history indicates will most likely drop even lower as time goes on. Why? Partly because the price of a new piano gets higher every year. Partly because there are at least 15 million used ones available. Some of them for free. And partly because digital keyboards also called an electronic keyboard or digital piano are getting better.

  Plus, the price is much lower than a really good piano. And they are lightweight and very portable. Seems like all the electric gadgets( since the radio first came out) have been trying to kill the piano. And I feel digitals may be winning.

Foreign Piano History In America

  In the 1700's, pianos were imported from Europe. Then Americans started building their own. Then later we started inporting them from Asia, plus a few from Europe. The last 40 years or so has seen a huge amount of Asian imports. Yamaha and Kawai from Japan starting in the late 1950's and 1960's. Samick and Young Chang from Korea started coming in around the late 70's or early 80's.

  By 1995 Chinese pianos were pouring in. In the late 1980's Asian competition was really hurting American piano makers, resulting in most of our factories closing. It got even worse in the 1990's with the Chinese imports. Now, there are only 3 or 4 piano companies left in America, making very low numbers of pianos. But take note, even the Asian piano sales numbers are much lower than they used to be.

  Obviously, piano manufacturing in America has seen it's heyday. And with new piano sales numbers dropping, will the piano become history? I doubt it. Almost everybody loves a piano. But, in the future there just won't be as many of them around.

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