If you look at the mechanical workings inside a modern piano, you will see that the wooden hammers which strike the strings are covered in thick, tightly compacted felt.
It is extraordinary to think that a tiny detail – felt hammerhead coverings – has been universally used in piano making since 1855.
Pianists and music lovers today owe this simple, yet ingenious, design element to the brilliant Germanborn French piano builder Jean-Henri Pape.
In the early nineteenth century the quest for a richer, louder sound from the piano resulted in thicker strings and heavier hammers. However to prevent the sound of the instrument becoming harsh, the hammers needed to be covered in felt – hammerheads in eighteenth century instruments were light slips of wood covered with a few layers of thin leather.
Pape, who was a genius in piano mechanics, patented the felt-covered hammer in 1826. Pape also solved a defect in square and grand pianos caused by a structural gap between the sounding board and wrest plank.
His clever solution, which used a coil spring to raise the hammers quickly, was groundbreaking in that it had almost no effect on the ‘touch’ of the piano.
This system was particularly successful in square pianos and the variations he introduced in the actions of upright pianos gave his instruments remarkable power.
These are just two of Pape’s important improvements to piano making: known for his odd and unusual pianos, he was believed to have had over 150 patents for various piano parts.
Pape’s outstanding contribution to music was acknowledged when he was awarded a gold medal at the 1834 National Exposition and in 1839 he received France’s highest order of merit, the Legion of Honour medal.
Nearly 200 years after it was built, this instrument in the Stewart Symonds Collection is a powerful reminder of the important place in piano
history reserved for Jean-Henri Pape.