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    

Cme Uf5 49-key Usb Midi Semi-weighted Synth-action Electronic Keyboard PianoM.guantini & S.brugnolini - 1977 Spacey Prog Funk Breaks & Fender Rhodes LibraryRoland Rd 300sx Piano Tested, Fully Functional! See Photos!Yamaha Cp70b Electric Grand PianoWolfgang Schluter Combo Peer Intern.library Lp Funk Breaks Fusion Fender RhodesMason & Hamlin Model A Grand PianoYamaha Ypg-235 76-key Portable Grand PianoOak Swivel Piano Stool Cast Iron Base Victorian? Adjustable Reed Pump Organ SeatYamaha - Electric Piano / Keyboard Ypt-300 With Stand And Sustain PedalPiano Tuner's Tool & Supply Box From Estate/no ReserveOpen Box - 61 Key Electronic Music Electric Keyboard Piano Usb - SilverLot Of 39 Qrs Player Piano Word Rolls, All Red BoxYamaha Motif Es7 W/plg150-pf Piano Plug-in BoardVarious Vintage Used Piano Tuning Tools Please Look At PhotosPlay-rite Nickelodeon Player Piano Music Roii "selling At No Reserve Auction"Cubist Rag (griselle) Played By Frank Banta, Melodee 203743 Piano Roll OriginalXkey Usb 25 Key Portable Piano KeyboardPol Ebony Thick Padded Piano Bench With Straight Legs Storage Akai Mpk Mini Mk2 Keyboard Midi PianoYamaha Ypg-235 76-key Portable Grand Piano Premium PackLot Of 9 Duo-art Song Music Rolls For Self-playing PianoAdjustable Piano Leather Wood Bench Storage Keyboard Stool Padded Height SeatVintage Lot Of 20 Qrs Player Piano Rolls, Popular TitlesHuge Lot Of 55 - Vintage Player Piano RollsVintage 1970s Fender Rhodes Knobs SkirtedKorg Sv1 88 Key Vintage Stage PianoOpen Box - 61 Key Electronic Piano Electric Keyboard With Stand + MicrophoneOpen Box - 61 Key Electronic Piano Electric Organ Keyboard With Stand - BlackCasio Ctk-710 Electronic Keyboard Midi 61 Keys PianoJail House Blues Played By Thomas Waller, Qrs 2670 Piano Roll, OriginalRmi Electric Piano Brochures1955 Chickering Baby Grand Piano, Mid Century Black Chickering Piano Vintage Casio Casiotone White Electric Electronic Keyboard Piano Mt-52 W Manual!PianoClassy Rag, Lillian M Lawler, Kimball C6421 88 Note Piano Roll, OriginalFir Wood Leather Black Piano Bench Padded Double Duet Keyboard Seat Storage1939 Steinway Model B Grand Piano (ebony) - Original Family Owner Sn# 297046Yamaha Psr-225gm Electronic Keyboard Grand Piano Works GreatOpen Box - 61 Key Electronic Piano Electric Organ Keyboard W/ Microphone - BlackVintage Piano Roll, "nigger Blues Fox Trot Jazz Chorus/rag Obligato", MibFox Trot Medley No. 3, Ampico Piano Roll #100495, Blue Is The Night + 3 MoreImperial Songrecord Player Piano Roll After You've Gone 9630-85 VintageLee Liberace & George Autographed Program, 1954, Photos, 16 Pgs Cleveland OhChristmas Player Piano Rolls Set Of FiveLot Of 7 Duo-art Song Music Rolls For Reproducing Player Self-playing Piano #5Steinway L Grand Piano Slightly Used Super Clean Shanks Flanges Hammers Set 88Casio Privia Px-360 Black 88 Key Piano61 Key Electronic Music Keyboard Piano Organ Lcd Display W/usb Input & LessonsElectronic Piano Keyboard Yamaha Ez-150 W/power AdapterAntique Piano Tuning Wrench Tool Rosewood Handle Telescoping HeadYamaha Portasound Pss-170 Voice Bank Electronic Keyboard Piano 44 Keys Vtg 80sLot Of 15 Qrs Player Piano Word Rolls, All Brown BoxesRagtime Medley With Four Rag Composition Original Old Piano RollKaiser's Got The Blues, Played By J Russel Robinson Us 39154 Piano Roll HandyHorses, Played By Edythe Baker, Melodee 47210 Piano Roll OriginalEvolution Rag, By Thos S. Allen, 88 Note 66097b (1912) Piano Roll RecutFour-flushin' Papa, Played By Lemuel Fowler, Us 42874 Piano Roll, Recut• Alesis • Stereo Grand Piano Q-card Lot Of 21 Vintage Player Piano Word Roll By Qrs Word RollsJune Night Played By Vee Lawnhurst, Welte Deluxe Y-6849 Piano Roll, Original