The piano was invented in the early years of the 18th century by an Italian instrument maker named Bartolomeo Cristofori. At the time, harpsichords, whose strings are plucked, and clavichords, whose strings are struck, were popular with composers and musicians, but the harpsichord could only be played loud (forte) while the clavichord could only be played soft (piano). The four-octave piano, or pianoforte as it was originally called, was constructed in such a way that players could control the volume of sound produced depending on how lightly or aggressively they pressed down on the instrument’s keys.

Throughout the 18th century, innovations to the piano’s escapement improved the action of the keys, permitting pianists to play faster and more fluidly. By 1730, a German organ maker named Gottfried Silbermann had introduced Johann Sebastian Bach to the instrument (Bach was reportedly nonplussed) and by 1760 the pianoforte had made its way to England. There, a former Silbermann apprentice named Johannes Zumpe produced the square piano, a smaller, less costly alternative to the grand pianos of the era made by piano makers such as Americus Backers.

In fact, England became a center for piano production (Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart played his first pianoforte there), thanks in no small part to the efforts of John Broadwood, who improved the piano’s action, expanded the instrument’s range to six octaves, and added a sustain pedal. While all this was going on in England, around 1774 a German immigrant named Johann Behrent settled in Philadelphia, where he built the first square piano in the United States. Another Philadelphian, John Isaac Hawkins, is credited with devising the first U.S. upright piano in 1800.

More important, though, were the contributions of a number of Bostonians. In 1819, Jonas Chickering apprenticed for the city’s only piano maker, John Osborne. Chickering struck out on his own in 1823, and eventually his pianos became so renowned that three presidents in a row—Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan, and Abraham Lincoln—played Chickerings in the White House. Less famous than Chickering in the first half of the 19th century, but arguably more influential, was Alpheus Babcock, whose innovations included a solid metal frame for a piano’s strings (he patented the design in 1825) and the practice of cross-stringing (prior to Babcock, piano strings ran parallel to each other).

One aspiring piano maker who improved upon Babcock’s overstrung piano, as it’s also called, was yet another German immigrant named Engelhard Steinweg, who built 482 pianos in New York before changing his name to Henry Steinway and founding Steinway & Sons in 1853. Steinway left Chickering in the dust (Chickering was absorbed by the American Piano Company in 1908) as the demand for pianos grew more than ten-fold between the end of the Civil War and the Edwardian era, when hundreds of thousands of units were produced annually.

Curiously, it was the proliferation of sheet music in late 19th and early 20th centuries that spurred U.S. demand. Mass-production techniques kept the piano factories humming, although to this day, Steinway still produces some 2,500 pianos a year by hand.

In the 20th century, two pianos in particular are worthy of note. The first is the Bösendorfer Imperial, which was introduced by its Austrian manufacturer in 1909 and features 97 keys instead of the standard 88 (the extra notes at the piano’s bass end give the instrument eight full octaves). The other milestone was the electric piano, whose cheerful, ringing tone was popularized in the 1959 Ray Charles song “What’d I Say” (Charles played a Wurlitzer). In 1965, Fender Rhodes introduced its 73-key Suitcase model; an 88-key Suitcase followed in 1970. Unlike electronic pianos and keyboards common today, an electric piano like the Rhodes and is a mechanical instrument, with strings and hammers just like a regular piano, except the sound is amplified via a pickup, similar to the way sound is captured on an electric guitar.

Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)

National Music Museum

National Music Museum

The National Music Museum, which is located at the University of South Dakota in Vermillion, features 15,000 instru… [read review or visit site]

Most watched eBay auctions    

Vintage Wurlitzer 200a Electric Piano Electronic Ep Wurli 200 Excellent Vibe Fender Rhodes Mark I 73 Suitcase Stage Piano Steinway Baby Grand Piano, Mahogany (m) 5'7 BenchYamaha Ypg-235 76-key Portable Grand Piano Premium PackM-audio Axiom 49 Semi-weighted Usb / Midi Controller 49-key Piano-style KeyboardAntique Wulitzer Nickelodeon Player PianoYamaha S 90 Es S90es 88 Key Weighted Keyboard Synth Piano Beautiful!!Casio Privia Px 150 Piano61 Key Electronic Piano Electric Organ Usb Keyboard With Stand - SilverRhodes Seventy Three Piano Mark 1 StageVintage Ivory Piano Keys Fender Rhodes Bass PianoVintage Kee Bass Keyboard Piano RheemWeber Rococo Grand Piano C.1885 Kurzweil K1200 88 Key Professional Keyboard / Piano In An Avanti Custom CaseAntique Mathushek Baby Grand Piano & Gorgeous Matching BenchPiano Tuning Tools 61 Key Electronic Piano Electric Organ Usb Keyboard With Stand - Silver61 Key Electronic Piano Electric Organ Usb Keyboard With Stand - SilverNew 54 Keys Music Electronic Keyboard Kid Electric Piano Organ W/mic & AdapterYamaha Baby Grand Piano Model #ga1"santa Claus Blues" Played By Roy Bargy Original Old Piano Roll Vintage Duo-art Player Piano Roll Gerschwin Medley Liberace 01253Three Little Fishes Liberace Ampico Player Piano Roll Music 61913 ReproducingPol Ebony Thick Padded Piano Bench With Straight Legs Storage Lot Of 12 Qrs Player Piano RollsLot Of 27 Ampico Player Piano RollsThe Man I Love Gershwin Ampico Player Piano Roll Music 209613 ReproducingWurlitzer Automatic Player Piano Nickelodeon Roll No. 21, Marches & Opera FavoriBeer Barrel Polka Liberace Ampico Player Piano Roll Music 30131 ReproducingNord Piano 2 Hp 73Schafer & Sons Upright Player Piano - Be Ready To Play Those Christmas CarolsNickelodeon Coin Operated Piano Roll Up From The South Blues #1184Vintage Player Piano Rolls – Lot Of 48Tannhauser Overture Wagner-liszt Ampico Player Piano Roll Music 100285Hale Sight Piano Tuner"good Gravy Rag" Original Old Piano Roll Jazz Medley Waller/handy Ampico Player Piano Roll Music 213851/210351/212111Chopin Program Vol. 1 Waltz Ampico Player Piano Roll Music ReproducingPiano Tuning KitSomwhere Over The Rainbow Wizard Oz Ampico Player Piano Roll Music 216533 BTony Bennett Medley Ampico Player Piano Roll Music 40161 ReproducingGo Away Little Girl Something Stupid Flint Ampico Player Piano Roll Music 30091Upright Piano - Schafer & Sons - Polished Mahogany Finish - BeautifulNickelodeon Coin Operated Piano Roll "red Hot Blues" A-2353Mills Violano Virtuoso Roll 2537 Good Selection Original Old Piano Roll5 Cesar Bechstein, Nierdorf, Brinsmead And Other Old Piano Keys Ampico-b Recut *jumbo* Piano Roll An American In Paris 100815Antique, Reclaimed Piano Key Heads 1800-1920's"desecration Rag" Original Old Piano Roll Warsaw Concerto Addinsell Ampico Player Piano Roll Music 40053 B ReproducingSymphony Fifth Beethoven - Ampico Player Piano Roll Music 58327 KlavierPolonaise Chopin Ampico Player Piano Roll Music 69833 B Reproducing KlavierDemonstration Series Tone Coloring Fischer Ampico Player Piano Roll Music 64003Wedding Day Troidhaugen Grieg Ampico Player Piano Roll Music 56854Harrington 5' Baby Grand PianoStyle G Music Roll 4x-208 Nickelodeon Coin Operated Piano Roll Vintage Duo-art Piano Roll 2 Sleepy People My Reverie April In My Heart 01122Big Ballad Program No. 60 - Ampico Player Piano Roll Music 58327 Play-riteMagnetic Rag Something Doin Scott Joplin Ampico Player Piano Roll Music 217003