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Bartolomeo Cristofori, inventor of the piano
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Who invented the piano? And why was he forgotten?

Updated by on May 4, 2015, 10:37 a.m. ET

The piano is one of those inventions that's hard to think of as an invention because it's just always been ... there. When you do think about someone actually inventing it, it's hard not to wonder: why haven't I heard of this person before? And why isn't his name plastered on every piano in existence?

Bartolomeo Cristofori, who would have celebrated his 360th birthday today, is generally credited with being the sole inventor of the piano. The fact that his name is largely forgotten is a reflection of his times, when a genius could be just another employee.

The first official record of the piano appears in 1700, though Cristofori may have been working on it for a couple of years before then. Cristofori's most recognizable piano dates later, to 1720. But more important than the date was the step forward the piano represented.

At the time, the harpsichord was the dominant keyboard instrument. The biggest problem was that it couldn't play notes with differing degrees of softness. To play a note, a tiny device called a plectrum plucked a string, and the note played. There wasn't an easy way to modify the sound and give it additional nuance. Though there were some hacks (and other instruments) that tried to fix the problem, they never worked well enough.

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