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    

Steinway And Sons Grand Piano61 Key Electronic Music Keyboard Piano Electric Organ - Full Size W/ Usb Input61 Key Electronic Piano Electric Organ Usb Keyboard With Stand - SilverMisc Piano ToolsPiano Regulation ToolsHand Full Of Piano Tuning And Repair ToolsOpen Box - 61 Key Electronic Piano Electric Organ Keyboard With Stand - BlackOpen Box - 61 Key Electronic Music Electric Keyboard Piano - SilverOpen Box - 61 Key Electronic Music Electric Keyboard Piano - SilverNord Electro 3 61-key Keyboard And Case Electric Piano / Organ / B361 Key Electronic Piano Electric Organ Usb Keyboard With Stand - SilverYamaha P45b Keyboard Piano Musical Instrument For Parts 378915 R16Yamaha Dc2 Mark3 Disclavier Player Grand Piano/flawlessPiano Stringing ToolsPiano Lot: Steinway Piano & (2) Yamha Clavinova Clp-650Casio Cz 101 Cz-101 Keytar Synthesizer Vintage 80s Digital SynthPol Ebony Thick Padded Piano Bench With Straight Legs Storage Yamaha Dgx 650 Portable Grand PianoYamaha Portable Grand Piano Dgx-650 New Perfect Conditon With Peddle BoardCasio Cz-101 Digital Synthesizer Keyboard (vintage), W/ Memory CardsCasio Lk-170 Key Lighting Keyboard 61 Piano Style Keys-open Box-missing ManualAmpico Piano Roll 217003 Magnetic Rag & Something Doin By Scott Joplin.Suzuki Hg-425e Mini-grand Ensemble Piano!Yamaha Dgx-205 Portable Grand, 76 Key, Electronic Piano/keyboard BundleM-audio Keystation 49 Ii (2014) 49-key Usb Midi Controller Music Piano KeyboardYamaha Cp33 Stage Piano1930's Vose & Sons Upright PianoVtg Piano Action Key Action Salesman Sample Store Display Steampunk Rare Richard4x-roll - 10 Tune Nickelodeon Roll - "clark Roll Snappy Favorites" - 4x-119Huntington Kb54100 Electronic Piano Musical Instrument 377214 Q15"i'm A Jazz Vampire" Original Old Piano Roll "dinner For One Please James" Original Old Piano Roll Baldwin Howard Upright Piano With BenchYamaha C5 Grand Piano OutletM-audio Axiom 61 2.0 Usb Midi Keyboard 61 Piano-size Semi-weighted Keys BlackCasio Lk-170 Key Lighting Keyboard 61 Piano Style Keys-new-original Package24 Qrs Piano Rolls 54 Key Electric Keyboard - Electronic Piano Organ Music Microphone Recording82 Vintage Piano Keys - Salvaged Antique C.1866 Wm. Knabe Piano Keys (42) White Ones ( Ivories)Casio Ctk-411 Electronic Midi Keyboard Piano Organ W/100 Rhythums & Song BankLot Of 8 Player Piano RollsAmpico B Reproducing Player Piano Roll # 215131Havana, Played By Ralph Reichenthal, Ampico 204461-e Piano RollLot Of 3 Qrs Piano Roll Bulletins, June, July, Nov., 1955, Historical Reference Bibbidi-bobbidi-boo -from Walt Disney's "cinderella" Qrs Piano Roll 8604Melodee Word Roll Two Little Wooden Shoes 4877 Frank Banta Player Piano RollQrs Joplin Rags From The Sting Xp-215b 3-song Player Piano Roll ( Entertainer)PianoLot Of 30 Antique Player Piano Rolls Qrs & OthersAmpico Jumbo Player Piano Roll - 100075 - Rachmaninoff / ChopinVintage Player Piano Roll Catalogues 1986-2000 Qrs Keystone EtcPiano Tuning Kit - Tuning Hammer, Tuning Fork, Felts, Mutes, BagAmpico B Reproducing Player Piano Roll # 213271Open Box - 61 Key Electronic Music Electric Keyboard Piano - SilverAmpico B Reproducing Player Piano Roll # 214851Duo-art Reproducing Player Piano Roll # 0937Ampico B Reproducing Player Piano Roll # 215221"that Mysterious Rag" Original Old Piano Roll Wilcox & White - #8161 10" Player Piano Organ Roll - Serenade - Free S&h Usa