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Piano History » Vertical Piano History

The first attempts to create a vertical piano were between 1735 and 1745. Italian Domenico Del Mela designed a vertical piano in 1739 using a simple action design. German Christian Ernst Friederici created what were known as 'pyramid' pianos, so named because of their distinctive shape, in 1745. Friederici took the existing grand piano and copied its design in a vertical form, taking the strings and soundboard and mounting them perpendicular to the keys, so that they rose straight up. The tuning pins were at the bottom of the strings, just above the keys. The piano action Frederici used was a simplified version of the one designed by Bartolomeo Christofori in 1720, however Frederici's action lacked the repetition features built into Christofori's design. The entire instrument sat on a stand or table, and the front had doors that could swing open, exposing the strings and soundboard. These designs were the only true merging of grand and upright piano designs, using the upright string and soundboard with the grand action. These designs carried on into the 1800's, but were weak and inferior to later designs, and by 1840, pyramid pianos and upright grands had stopped being produced altogether.

Vertical pianos evolved in the late 1780's with the development of an action designed vertically, following the alignment of the strings and soundboard. The early action was called a 'sticker' action, because of the long wooden stickers that connected the back of the key to the hammer mechanism. The hammer head was mounted perpendicular to the strings, and triggered so the hammer head struck back towards the strings and returned forward. It was designed in 1787 by John Landreth, and built and implemented by Englishman William Southwell in 1798. Another major development was diagonal stringing, enabling longer strings in the upright case, and improving tone. In 1831 Hermann Lichtenthal designed a system where the piano hammer was 'checked' by a length of tape, so that it wouldn't bounce back to the strings on a single blow. Englishman Robert Wornum refined the tape-check action, the basis for today's vertical piano actions. Two different methods of damping the strings were developed. One was the overdamper system, where a long wire was attached to the front of each intermediate lever that went up and over the tops of the hammers. When the key was pressed, the wire moved a linkage that lifted a square of felt off the string before the hammer struck, and returned the felt when the key was released. This system continued until the late 1800's and was popular in England and Germany. The second system was a hinged lever that was attached to the back of each hammer mechanism, close to the strings, that pivoted the square of felt off the strings by a direct link to the intermediate lever. This design is more efficient in damping the string and is what is used in today's vertical pianos. This completed the design of the vertical action, and today's actions have not radically changed from those of the early 1800's.

By 1840, vertical pianos resembled those that we have today, albeit smaller and with more delicate construction. The strings were now running completely to the bottom of the case, which rested on the ground, not on a table like the pyramid pianos. The tuning pins now were positioned at the top of the case, with the strings running diagonally down the case and fastened at the bottom. The action and keys were positioned in the center of the strings, with the key pushing the sticker up and tripping the hammer back towards the strings.

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