Portable Grand Piano

From Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia

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Thomas Jefferson and John Isaac Hawkins of Philadelphia became involved with each other over a piano[1] and exchanged several lively and interesting letters on the piano and other subjects over a period of years. Hawkins, born in England, was a little of everything - he had been a civil engineer, a poet, a preacher and a phrenologist. He had musical talent, had had some musical training, and even composed a little. He had a great natural gift for mechanics and had invented, or modified, a number of things, I among them a polygraph and a physiognotrace. At one time he bad the prospect of "making money by selling patent rights for improving Rum and Whiskey." Hawkins' and Jefferson's mutual friend, Charles Willson Peale, was sure that Hawkins' "ingenious mechanical powers will be of great advantage to America if we can keep him."

Although Hawkins was not primarily a maker of musical instruments, his gift for mechanical experimentation had led him to try piano building. In 1800 he patented his famous, or infamous, little upright piano, which he called a "portable grand." The piano was musically worthless. Its importance to piano building lay in the fact that it was one of the earliest attempts to build an upright piano with perpendicular stringing and a metal frame.

Mr. Jefferson, that inveterate tinkerer and lover of gadgets and novelties, saw this new musical creation of Hawkins' and could not resist it. "A person here, (Philadelphia)" he wrote to his daughter Martha Randolph May, 1800.

...has invented the prettiest improvement in the Forte piano I have ever seen. It has tempted me to engage one for Monticello, partly for its excellence and convenience, partly to assist a very ingenious, modest and poor young man, who ought to make a fortune by his invention.

The ingenious young man called his invention a portable grand because when closed it was small enough to look like "the underhalf of a bookcase" and could easily be moved anywhere by its handles. To early nineteenth-century eyes, accustomed to rectangular or wing-shaped keyboard instruments with horizontal stringing, it looked weird. Mr. Jefferson, however, was "tempted" to the amount of $264 for Hawkins' five-and-a-half octave model. He paid for it in four installments between January and May, 1800.

The queer-looking instrument came to Monticello in the early summer of 1800. It had been exposed to much rain, a normal hazard of eighteenth- and early nineteenthcentury piano transportation. Mr. Jefferson thought that it had been too well covered to sustain much damage, but it was very much out of tune. He tuned it and everyone was delighted with it. Even Martha preferred it to any keyboard instrument she had ever heard - except, of course, her own magnificent Kirkman harpsichord.

Charles Willson Peale sent Martha, via her father, a "piece of Music composed by Mr. Hawkins, the person whose patent Piano she is in possession of; its effect may perhaps be improved from associating the two circumstances." The "piece of Music" was, "The People's Friend," one of three little songs which Hawkins wrote in honor of Jefferson's election. Peale's son, Rembrandt, wrote the lyrics, which were about the same cluality as the music.

The portable grand's career was short and inglorious. After only two years, Jefferson was ready to send it back for repairs. It simply would not stay in tune. For over a year it had not been in tune for even an hour. Jefferson assured Hawkins that he had not let anyone else try to repair it, although one suspects that Mr. Jefferson may have worked on it a little himself. Hawkins was not surprised at the piano's failure; the same thing happened to two others he built, but he was absolutely certain that he could repair all of them. He regretted that he was so short of money, necessitating Jefferson's paying for the repairs and for the shipping charges to Philadelphia, about $40. Hawkins would pay Jefferson back as soon as he returned from England, where he was going to claim a legacy, as soon as he could raise the money to go!

In the meantime, Jefferson saw in a newspaper that Hawkins had invented another musical marvel, the claviol, which was similar to several other attempts to give a bowedstring sound to key-board instruments. Jefferson gave Hawkins permission to sell his piano if he had a buyer for it, and send him either a claviol or another piano. Hawkins noted the arrival of Jefferson's piano, not improved by another bout with wet weather, and wrote back announcing that he no longer made pianos. He just happened to have one around, however, the "best I ever made," and he would swap even.

In the same letter, Hawkins sent a drawing and a rapturous description of his claviol - it was as loud as "12 or 15 violins and basses" and at a distance sounded like a "full hand" in which you could distinguish the sounds of various instruments. Up close it sounded like an organ. Its soft tones were perfect, too; they were "extremely soft and sweet," like a glass harmonica. Unfortunately, there were some "imperfections in the machinery" which rendered the claviol useless to anyone but Hawkins.

A year later, bubbly and confident as ever, Hawkins told Jefferson that he was going to England to start a claviol factory and that Jefferson should have the first perfect model. He went, but never seems to have organized his factory, and eventually others appropriated his ideas. Apparently Jefferson never received either a claviol or another piano from him, and the claviol seems never to have burst upon the musical world. A contemporay encyclopedia laconically stated that "We have never heard or seen this instrument . . . and only give this account of it as an advertisement. If its perfections are not exaggerated, its invention would be a valuable discovery." One concludes that its perfections were indeed exaggerated. One also wonders what happened to Mr. Jefferson's $300.


  1. This article is based on Helen L. Cripe, Monticello Keepsake, April 12, 1972.

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