The piano that “virtually cannot get out of tune”
In the 1880s, the Ithaca Organ Company began to manufacture a unique type of piano: a double-stringed upright that would virtually never get out of tune.
The idea originated with a poor workman in a New York City piano factory who for several years had tried unsuccessfully to sell his invention. When J. H. Hintermister of the Ithaca Organ Company heard the beautiful tone of the workman’s piano, he publicly endorsed the invention and the workman gave him the piano in return. In 1881, the Ithaca Organ Company began to produce its own pianos based on the workman’s creation.
The double-stringed upright piano was designed to offset the strain on the piano’s frame, eliminating the need to tune it. The double-stringing also made the piano twice as loud as an ordinary upright. When a pianist played a note, the corresponding hammer would strike one set of strings, and the other set would vibrate sympathetically. According to The Ithaca Journal, the piano was “the equivalent of a great grand in a third less the space with more music, less noise, an easier touch and at a third of the cost.”
The Ithaca Organ Company marketed its double-stringed pianos to people living in rural areas who might not have access to a piano tuner, and to those who would want an instrument always in good condition. The company used local ash, maple, and elm wood in many instruments and planned to expand its line of pianos to include four-stringed and six-stringed uprights that would be sold for around $500. However, the company did not last long and closed in 1886, just nine years after it was founded.
Today, one of the double-stringed pianos is part of the collection at The History Center in Tompkins County. The piano, which was manufactured between 1881 and 1883, was used at the Manhattan Theater to accompany silent films. The back of the piano is different from that of most uprights today. Instead of having a closed wooden exterior, the back is open and you can clearly see the second set of strings and the damper.
Although the piano has not lived up to its title as one that cannot get out of tune, the set of double strings still produces a rich tone that surpasses that of many ordinary uprights.
Eli Zhang and Francesca Chu are interns at The History Center in Tompkins County and seniors at Ithaca High School.