The inventor of the piano, Bartolomeo Cristofori, is celebrated in last year’s Google Doodle.
Born on 4 May, 1655 in Padua, northern Italy, Cristofori initially worked making harpsichords and clavichords and was employed by Prince Ferdinando de Medici, son of the duke of Tuscany.
He is believed to have started work on what would become a piano in the 1690s and the first one is thought to have been made in 1709.
In a harpsichord the strings are plucked, so it is not possible to play the notes softer or louder. Cristofori managed to design a mechanism that transferred the pressure placed on the keys to the hammers that hit the strings.
He called his invention a “gravecembalo col piano e forte” – a clavichord with soft and loud. The name was shortened to pianoforte and then simply piano.
Francesco Mannucci, a musician at the Medici court, described one early version as “a large ‘Arpicembalo’ [the name of a type of harpsichord] by Bartolomeo Cristofori, of new invention that produces soft and loud, with two sets of strings at unison pitch, with soundboard of cypress without rose”.
While other musical instrument makers had attempted to solve the same problem with the harpsichord, Cristofori’s invention is generally regarded as the first real piano.
However, the piano was not popular at first and many felt it was too difficult to play. Cristofori died largely uncelebrated for an invention that would later change the musical world in 1731 – a year before the first sheet music for the piano appeared.