1825 Babcock square piano (Boston)

Alpheus Babcock was an extraordinarily innovative piano maker, best known for his invention of the one-piece cast iron string frame. Born in Massachusetts in 1785, he learned piano building from Benjamin Crehore. Alpheus and his brother, Lewis, established their own manufactory in 1809, and in 1811 Alpheus became a partner of Thomas Appleton, but for most of his life from 1814 he worked with a succession of wealthy merchants, of whom George Mackay and John Klemm were the most prominent. Babcock's pianos usually have a plaque in which the name of the merchant predominates. The plaque of our piano says "Made by A. Babcock for John G. Klemm."

Babcock worked in Boston until 1829, and again from 1837 through his death, in 1842. He spent the years 1829-37 in Philadelphia, working for John Klemm. Our instrument, serial #188, was probably constructed at Babcock’s manufactory in Boston in 1825, and shipped to Philadelphia for sale through Klemm, prior to Babcock's years in that city. 

Babcock's patent for the cast iron frame was originally filed in 1825 and re-filed in 1833, following a fire in the patent office that destroyed all records (only a drawing survives - at right). Interestingly, only three examples of Babcock's iron frame are known to have survived, out of the total of about 100 Babcock pianos (all squares) whose whereabouts is known today. In 1830 Babcock patented the principle of  "cross-stringing" (running a string from a tuning pin, around a hitch pin or fixture of some nature, and back to a second tuning pin), with a number of options aimed at shortening the the back length of the string between the bridge and the hitch fixture. See the patent text for Babcock's own words. [In reading the patent text, note that "pin block" refers to the point where the hitch pins are attached, not the tuning pin block].

When he returned to Boston in 1837 Babcock worked for Jonas Chickering, and seems to have been responsible for Chickering’s adoption of the cast iron plate. Babcock also patented action improvements in 1839, and experimented with various ways to cover hammer heads, including the use of a piece of lead toward the tip of the hammer molding to add mass to the hammer (patented by Babcock's partner John Mackay in 1828).

 

The range is over 5 1/2 octaves, F1 to C7.

Like the Scherr, this Babcock has six decoratively turned legs.

There are two pedals, the left for the dampers, and the right for the "harmonic swell" (described later).

The name of the merchant partner John G. Klemm is more prominent than that of the maker.

The bar in the foreground is covered in felt on its bottom, to damp the length of the strings between the bridge and the hitch pins. When raised, it serves as a "harmonic swell," providing some additional sympathetic resonance. It was invented by the English maker Collard in 1821, and was a regular feature of Babcock's pianos, though rarely found in pianos of other American makers. The wooden cover, or “shade,” over the section of strings between the keys and tuning pins moderates the sound somewhat and hides the mechanism from sight, while protecting the strings from drafts. 


 

The hitch pins are on the right, and the tuning pins along the back of the piano, as in most square pianos from this time on.

A portion of the jacks can be seen below the hammer rail, showing the eye of the adjustment screw, which identifies the action as "English double" or "grasshopper" in design.

Babcock's 1839 patent was for the design on the left, in which his improvement consisted of a method to reduce return noise. The design on the right is the standard "grasshopper" action, present in this instrument.

Note the hammer heads: they have a wooden core with a semicircle of hard, dark leather at the tip, and a strip of brown leather stretched around the core. These are covered by multiple layers of lighter colored leather, skived very precisely. The lighter material, which is probably tawed or buff leather, consists of three layers: a lower layer stretched all around, an intermediate tapered layer covering only the crown, then a top layer, tapered and extending down most of the shoulder length.

This photo, from an 1828 Babcock piano at Colonial Williamsburg, shows use of lead at the tip of the hammer molding, to add mass to the hammer and thereby change the touch and tone quality produced. (Photo courtesy of John Watson).

 

 

Removal of the “shade” reveals the dampers, which are of the newer design used by Broadwood: a cloth-covered wooden head on a wire that extends through a hole in the pinblock toward the key below, unlike damper levers hinged above the strings and pressed downward by springs, seen in our Scherr, Geib, and Buntebart pianos.

The bass strings are wrapped with metal ribbon (rectangular in cross section), rather than with wire (round in cross section). This is one of Babcock's unique innovations, which he apparently believed would give better tone quality, as making and wrapping metal ribbon requires far more trouble and expense than wire.

The damper wire is threaded at the bottom, and screws into an under lever. The hammer shank is hinged with parchment.

Resembling a sideboard, this piano has three drawers in its integral stand.