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The Piano: An Amazing Feat Of Engineering

Ah, those Italians, genius engineers and master inventors – Galileo, Da Vinci, Fermi, the moving vehicle, the make-up of the Solar System, the electric battery, the Fiat…OK maybe not the Fiat so much. I had one of those damn cars and it spent more time in the shop than on the road.

But truly, the Italians have produced some of the greatest scientists, philosophers and inventors ever seen, and perhaps none more important for music lovers than Bartolomeo Cristofori of Padua. Cristofori moved to Florence in 1688, at the behest of his Prince, de Medici, at the age of 33, to be the Prince’s own court inventor of clocks, mechanical devices and musical instruments. Cristofori was already competent at building the plucked-string kyboard instruments of the day, the spinette and the virginal.

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Around 1700, Cristfori invented an instrument he named the “Arpicembalo”, literally “harp-harpsichord.” It was the first keyboard instrument with two strings per unison and the strings excited by a strike from a hammer instead of a quill plectrum. The fact that it could produce a wide range of volumes, from soft (piano) to very loud (forte), eventually caused everyone to substitute “pianoforte,” or the soft-loud, for Cristofori’s original harp-harpsichord moniker

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The amazing genius of Cristofori’s invention was the “escapement action.” Configuring just a few sticks of wood and a few springs, Cristofori fashioned a mechanism that allowed the hammer to be lifted up to string by pressing down the key, but then having the stick that was pushing the hammer up, snap out, or disconnect, from the hammer at the precise moment just berore it struck the strings. Obviously, without this “escapement” ability, the hammer would hit the strings but also be held against them, therefore instantly stopping the vibrations, as long as the player held down the key. The escapement mechanism allowed player to strike the keys, set the notes vibrating, and release the key only when necessary, at any pace they desired. Thus was born the sound and playing style that allowed for the beautiful “Piano,” as it came to be known for short.

The piano is now 300 years old, and so many improvements have proceeded from Cristofori’s original cabinet, frame, string, hammer and action designs (covered next post.) But as I viewed some of Cristofori’s original 1720s pianos at the Smithsonian’s heavenly “300 Years Of The Piano” exhibit in 2000, as a technician, the thing I was most struck by was how little his basic action design has been changed, how similar the functional design is to that of a grand piano built in the 21st century.

Ah, those Italians, they’ve given us so much joy! I like the shoes, too. We’ll look at some of the improvements and evolution since Cristofori’s day in our next entry.

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