Thomas Edison’s Concrete Piano

 

When Edison was 52, his iron ore mining operation, ran with his own ore crushing invention, ended in massive failure and he was flat broke. But Ole Tom was not easily deterred. He put the defunct machinery to use in the production of cement instead. His patented improvements to the efficiency of Portland cement production led to overproduction in the industry, and finding alternate uses for his product became a sensible business strategy. Edison went with the flow. He proposed that concrete be used to make just about everything, from roads, to houses and furniture.   


 

The great man’s intentions were honourable; concrete is desirable building material in many respects. And Edison believed wholeheartedly that a parlour piano was a healthy addition to every family. He wanted to provide America with an affordable instrument of high musical quality. Unfortunately for Americans, Edison’s concrete plans did not make it far off the drawing board. Eleven of his concrete houses were built, but the public rejected them; despite their low price tag, they sat abandoned for months.  


This phonograph cabinet, designed by Edison, is made from concrete. 

All over the world, press laughed at Edison’s plans for concrete appliances, and his application for a furniture patent was denied. The concrete piano died before it had been born. But then…in 1931, the Lauter Piano Company took up the cause, and patented a process to build Edison’s concept. They then built and sold many of them. The model looked for all intents and purposes as any other 5-foot baby grand, albeit heavier. Kim Hunter of Orange Coast Pianos in Santa Anna, California has played one. He says “the piano sounded like a terrible spinet” with no musical value, and it would be” better as an anchor.”

It seems logical that the sound of a piano depends on the properties of the piano body. Whereas the wood body of a wooden

baby grand resonates with the wooden soundboard, the concrete of a concrete baby grand absorbs the sound, deadening it. However, Professor Joe Wolfe, a physicist who specializes in music, points  out that “the properties of the case contribute little to the acoustics (apart from its geometry). Theoretically, then, it should be perfectly feasible to produce a concrete piano with a wooden soundboard that mimics the sound of a normal piano. Ironically, Edison’s own creation, the phonograph, contributed to the ultimate demise of the parlour-room piano. In 1909, 374,000 new pianos were sold in America.  Only one hundred thousand were sold in America in 1999, despite increased population and household income. None of them were made of concrete.

 

 

 

 
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