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.