Thomas Edison's 'failed' concrete piano sings
Beautiful arpeggios and even entire sweet sonatas can indeed emerge from a piano made of concrete, as famed inventor Thomas Edison envisioned.
That's what an Ontario family discovered that when they encased their own 1912 Webber piano in cement as an experiment.
"There's that perception that a concrete piano has to sound bad," said Judy Wearing of Napanee, Ont., adding Friday that she and her family were surprised to find the concrete actually improved the sound. "It sounded clearer. The notes were cleaner."
She spoke to an acoustic physicist who said the concrete dampens the resonance within the piano, but whether that improves or worsens the sound is a matter of personal taste.
Wearing researched the unpopular kind of piano for her book Edison's Concrete Piano, which describes the "failed inventions" of 12 famous minds, including Albert Einstein and Alexander Graham Bell. (Bell's was a sheep with six nipples, rather than the usual two).
Edison, inventor of the phonograph and the man who commercialized the modern incandescent light bulb, was the owner of the Portland Cement company. The company had improved the manufacturing process so much that it was scrambling to expand the market for its product.
Tom Riddolls, Wearing's husband, said Edison also had another motivation:
"He wanted to create a piano that was cheap enough that every American home could have one."
A piano made of concrete would still house a wooden soundboard, where most of the sound is produced. A mold would allow the concrete exterior to be cast with ornamental embellishments only achievable in wood or stone through expensive hand carving. The concrete could then be painted to resemble other materials, Wearing said.
"He could make things out of concrete that ordinary Joe Blow could not afford to be made out of wood or marble or whatever."
The question for Wearing was whether the instrument could do what pianos are supposed to — make beautiful music.
The Lauter Piano Company briefly produced concrete pianos in 1931, and Wearing learned from some people who owned those pianos that they didn't sound very good. She suspected that might not have to do with concrete.
To test the idea, her family took two upright pianos and placed them side by side. One was encased in concrete and the other was left as is. They also recorded music played on the same piano before and after the procedure.
The results made Wearing think twice about whether the piano deserved to appear alongside the other "unsuccessful" ideas in her book.
"When I looked into it," she said. "I realized it's not such a bad idea after all."