The year is 1851 and the weather is already bleak in November. My family and I live in a cozy house in Copenhagen, Denmark, but you wouldn’t know how pretty our home is due to last week’s snowstorm, which covered our entire neighborhood in snow. My father is Conrad Hornung, an expert piano inventor and manufacturer. He learned the craft from my great-grandfather, and he hopes to pass on the skill to me someday.
Yesterday, I overheard my father speak about going to an exhibition in a gigantic glass building called the Crystal Palace in Great Britain. King Frederik VII had asked my father to showcase a single-piece, cast-iron frame piano at the modern exhibition. This was unheard of for the time. “A single-piece, cast-iron frame? That’s impossible!” Father said when he opened the letter from King Frederik. “This has never been done before. The cast would be incredibly complex and multi-layered,” my father muttered under his breath.
For decades, my father has been making pianos with a composite frame that includes thirteen brass, iron longwise tubes, and four wooden crossbars like the way pianos are made in the rest of Europe. And he has just heard about the single frame from the Americas, but it has never been done before in Europe. King Frederik wants my father to be a pioneer in manufacturing a single-frame piano in all of Europe. It’s going to be a huge undertaking considering the little time we have been given. With the exhibition taking place next year during the period May 1 – October 15, my father has less than a year to design, test, and manufacture the single-piece cast-iron frame piano. His work represents the very best that Denmark offers the world. This is a heavy burden to bear for anyone.
That night, with a clearer mind, my father said, “I’m going to try my best because King Frederik has faith in me and I want to make my country and my King proud.” Father declared loudly, “I will make this happen!” Immediately grabbing a stack of paper and a pen, my father started to sketch out possible designs for the metal single frame piano. He silently worked late into the night.
Over the course of several weeks, my father diligently worked on his designs and discussed ideas with his blacksmith and the factory engineers. He must have sketched out dozens of designs, mostly ending up in trash. I could sense the determination on his face.
Some days were harder than others. I could hear the frustration in his voice. Often, he would skip family dinner, working steadfastly in his workshop late into the night. I was responsible for bringing him dinner. Mother worried that Father was working too hard.
By week seven, my father and his assistants were certain they had the winning design. The final design was approved by some of the most recognized engineers and piano manufacturers in Denmark.
That night was the first time I saw a smile on my father’s face. He joined us for dinner and even read a book to me at bedtime. I could sense that Mother was very pleased.
The very next day, Father set to work with his helpers to obtain all the supplies needed to build the single-cast piano. Only the finest iron ores were sourced. The most important step was to get the mould right. The cast iron mould would have to precisely account for the stress bars, capo d’astro, hitch pins, pin blocks, and web. Many days went into this effort.
After much work, the first mould was ready for testing. The entire town came to watch. This surely was an exciting day, but one could sense the nervousness of the crowd and the workers. The villagers watched anxiously.
The melted iron in the cauldron was carefully poured into a casting ladle to pour molten metal to produce the casting. The hot liquid metal bubbled and hissed as it poured into the bottom mould. Once filled, the top mould was placed over the bottom and then locked securely to ensure no liquid escaped. To fill the entire mould, the mechanism holding the casting had to be tilted vertically up. The men worked rapidly in the heat, with beads of sweat pouring down their faces and backs. They carried the casting ladle one after another. After a while, I lost count of the number of ladles. Then, to everyone’s amazement, the molten liquid splattered and smoked as it began to overflow. The casting was filled.
The next step in the process was much harder than the previous because we had to wait for the metal to cool down. Several dozen people crowded around the casting. It felt like years waiting for this thing to cool down.
Finally, Father gave a signal to check. The ironsmith gave an approving nod. The men worked together to unlock the casting and then lift and remove the top mould. As the molten metal emerged, we could see the bright-orange color of the hot metal. The workers had to be careful as the material was still relatively soft. If mishandled, the casting could easily be disfigured.
For extra caution, my father suggested that they hold off in trying to remove the metal until it cooled to a point that it was hard enough to be safely transported out. To the dismay of the villagers, Father also suggested that everyone go home for dinner and come back the next day to see the progress.
That night Father and the workmen came back to the workshop to remove the single cast-iron piece out of the mould. It was a beautiful masterpiece; I was absolutely amazed. Father was even more surprised although he had designed the piece himself.