Thomas Jefferson and John Isaac Hawkins of Philadelphia became involved with each other over a piano and exchanged several lively and interesting letters on the piano and other subjects over a period of years. Hawkins, born in England, had turned his hand to 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 objects, among them a polygraph and a physiognotrace. At one time, he had the prospect of "making money by selling Patent rights for improving Rum & whiskey." Charles Willson Peale, a mutual friend of Jefferson and Hawkins, was sure that the latter's "engenious 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.
Jefferson, an inveterate tinkerer and lover of gadgets and novelties, saw this new musical creation and could not resist it. "[A] person here," he wrote to his daughter Martha Jefferson Randolph in February 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 it's excellence & convenience, partly to assist a very ingenious, modest & poor young man, who ought to make a fortune by his invention."
The ingenious young man called his invention a portable grand because the closed instrument was small enough to look like "the under half of a book case" 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, the portable grand looked weird. Jefferson, however, was "tempted" to the amount of $264 for Hawkins's 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 nineteenth-century piano transportation. Jefferson thought that it had been too well covered to sustain much damage, but it was very much out of tune. Once he tuned it, everyone was delighted with the new piano. Even Martha preferred it to any keyboard instrument she had ever heard — except, of course, her own magnificent Kirckman 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 that Hawkins wrote in honor of Jefferson's election to the presidency. Peale's son, Rembrandt, wrote the lyrics, which were about the same quality 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 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 had 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 about $40 for the repairs and for the shipping charges to Philadelphia. Hawkins promised to 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 bowed string sound to keyboard 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, however, to have one around — 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 & basses" and at a distance sounded like a "full band" in which one could distinguish the sounds of various instruments. Up close, the new claviol sounded like an organ. Its soft tones were perfect, too; they were "extremely soft & sweet," like a glass harmonica. Unfortunately, there were some "imperfections in the machinery" that 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 Hawkins, and the claviol seems never to have burst upon the musical world. A contemporary 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 Jefferson's $300.
- Helen L. Cripe, 4/12/72. Originally published as "Mr. Jefferson's Upright Piano," in Anniversary Dinner at Monticello, April 12, 1972, in Memory of Thomas Jefferson (Charlottesville: Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation, 1972).
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