The idea of an instrument that uses hammerheads to strike the strings and get elegant, tall and rich sounds dates back to the Italian Renaissance. As you know, the Renaissance was a flourishing era for art in general, but it was also the time when first attempts were made to improve the classical musical instruments and invent new ones. The first harpsichord a la martelleti (with hammers), which was one of the closest predecessors of the piano, was built between 1709 and 1711 by Bartolomeo di Francesco Cristofori, and completed in 1726. This is actually the first instrument with hammers and it uses the most basic mechanism for a piano, perpetuated until today.
The invention of the piano
From there on, history is slightly unclear, though the idea of building the first piano, spreading and popularizing such instruments is attributed to the Germans. Officially, the French Marius and the German organist Schröter are recognized as inventors of the normal piano, and Gottfried Silbermann as the inventor of the upright piano. By Sillbermann’s endeavors, the instrument was improved and built in several German cities, gaining prestige and value in the eyes of European musicians.
Pianos spread across the globe
Around 1910 pianos were so popular that were largely produced in Leipzig, Berlin, New York, Paris, Stuttgart and Bremen. Several brands became more popular than others: Bluthner, Bechstein, Steinway, Sebastien Erard, Lipp & Sohn, August Förster, Schiedmayer were companies which hired their own piano inventors and developers. The design started changing according to the room type it which the piano was to be used. The grand piano, which we know simply as the piano was made for large spaces, it exceeded 2m in length and was excellent for concerts with a large number of spectators.
The upright piano is smaller, has a vertical position (hence its name) and is made for smaller rooms. The upright pianos are also cheaper and often used in schools to initiate the young in the art of musical interpretation.
Perfecting the piano
Since any variation in humidity or temperature led to the tuning out of the instrument, the wood in which the tuning pins were mounted was mainly hardwood and was subjected to a special treatment. The piano construction used several kinds of wood: oak, beech, maple, poplar Canadian fir, spruce and other softer species. Many of these species are used even today.
There are two types of mechanical systems in building pianos: Viennese and English. English mechanics were preferred instead of the Viennese ones because they easily allow interventions for tuning, regulations and repairs. Also, the system is more robust and the functioning more accurate.
The Steinway piano factory in 1830, New York, changed the position of the strings by crossing them. This way the obtained a greater economy of space while using longer strings and getting a more powerful and beautiful sound. Today, all pianos are built with crossed strings and English mechanics.