The year is 1851 and the weather was already bleak for November. My family and I lived in a cozy house in Copenhagen, Denmark, but you wouldn’t know how pretty our home was 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 hoped 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.”
For decades, my father had been making pianos with a composite frame that included thirteen brass, iron longwise tubes, and four wooden crossbars like the way pianos were made in the rest of Europe. And he had just heard about the single frame from the Americas, but it had never been done before in Europe. King Frederik wanted my father to be the pioneer in manufacturing a single-frame piano in all of Europe. It was going to be a huge undertaking considering the little time we had been given. With the exhibition taking place next year during the period May 1 – October 15, my father had less than a year to design, test, and manufacture the single-piece cast-iron frame piano. His work represented the very best that Denmark offered the world. This was 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!” He Immediately grabbed 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, most ended up in the trash. I sensed the determination on his face. Some days were harder than others. I heard 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 mold right. The cast iron mold had 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 mold 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, beads of sweat poured 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 lifted and removed 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 mold. It was a beautiful masterpiece; I was absolutely amazed. Father was even more surprised, although he had designed the piece himself.
The entire village turned up the next day to watch the unveiling of the single-piece, cast-iron frame. Father and the head engineer began to conduct measurements to verify the accuracy of the stress bars, capo d’astro, hitch pins, pin blocks and web. There was a deafening silence as the measurements and re-measurements took place. After about 15 minutes of waiting, something magical happened. Everyone saw my father’s victorious smile that stretched from one ear to the other. We had done it. Father had managed to successfully build the very first single-piece, cast-iron frame in all of Europe. It was a triumphant day for Denmark.
I was so proud of Father. I gave him a huge hug and declared, “You did it, Father!”
Father looked at me with tears in his eyes and spoke softly to me, “My son, I couldn’t have done this without your support…the meals that you brought me every night, the words of encouragement when things weren’t going well. Thank you. I love you so much.”
The joyous occasion was short-lived. We had less than two months to finish the entire piano. The crew worked day and night. Slowly but steadily, it was all coming together; a rectangular piano with 6 ¾ octaves was emerging.
At last, a few days before we needed to prepare the piano for shipment, the new piano was ready! A concert pianist was brought in for a performance for the townspeople. It was a starry night with a cool yet comfortable breeze. As the pianist began to play, we immediately heard the beautiful, melodic music waft from the piano. It was warm, bright, clear, and simply brilliant…nothing short of a masterpiece.
It was the first single-frame piano in all of Europe! I couldn’t believe it. I thought to myself, Now Father’s going to be famous. He might even be knighted!
When King Frederik was informed of the wonderful news, he was overjoyed. His Majesty promptly visited our workshop. After he saw and heard the piano, he declared, “This is indeed a masterpiece. Make Denmark shine at the exhibition!” The Copenhagen newspaper quoted the King praising Father’s accomplishment. I sensed the national pride as the public buzzed about the piano and our prospects at the Great Exhibition.
King Frederik generously made provisions for the piano to be shipped in a big, luxurious ocean liner. In addition to the rectangular single-piece, cast-iron piano, a cabinet piano was also packaged. With great care, a team of movers safely carried and secured the pianos onboard.
Father told me that the journey would be long and he was right. It took us a little over a week to reach London. The trip was bearable with our cozy bunk beds and great accommodations onboard, including the luxurious dessert and breakfast pastries. For lunch and dinner, the King made sure we had an elaborate spread as it should be for special guests of the King.
After arriving on British soil, the movers transported the pianos to the Crystal Palace. In the meantime, Father and I checked into our hotel, freshened up, and went out for dinner. I was thrilled when I found out that we would get free breakfast and afternoon snacks during our hotel stay.
This was my first time in London and my senses took in all the new sights, sounds, and people bustling about the major city. We ate at the oldest restaurant in London called Rules, which specialized in classic British food. It was great to eat something different besides fancy pastries and cruise line food.
Early the ext day, we left for the Crystal Palace. As we approached the massive glass building, I was in utter awe. It took up 26 acres in Hyde Park with full-size trees inside! What a sight to behold!
Once on site, we found our designated area and began setting up our pianos. Other exhibitors quickly made their way to our exhibit and inquired about our marvelous pianos. When we showed them the single-piece, cast-iron frame, they were in disbelief. People applauded Father and his team for their engineering feat. Father beamed with pride as the crowd validated his triumphant accomplishment.
We were informed that Queen Victoria herself would be making the rounds at the exhibit. How exciting! We were about to showcase the very best Denmark offered. I couldn’t wait to see Her Majesty, the Queen’s reaction. Denmark would be respected and admired among nations.
We woke the next morning to a polite knock on the door. Hotel staff brought in our breakfast on a shiny silver platter. After we had our fill, we hurried to the Crystal Palace to ensure everything was in perfect order before the doors opened to the public. We anxiously waited for the opening ceremony.
Queen Victoria opened the Great Exhibition on May 1, 1851. The price of admission was £3 for gentlemen and £2 for ladies. The people came in throngs, in their elegant carriages. We heard the announcement of the Queen approaching. Dozens of royal escorts filled the exhibition hallway. There was a big commotion as the exhibitors stood up in response. The mood was absolutely electrifying. After a few minutes, the rest of the entourage filled the space. Then finally, the Queen emerged. It was Queen Victoria herself! I felt light-headed. I thought to myself, was this real? We had waited months for this moment. Our hearts pounded heavily. Father’s face beamed with delight. But, the Queen and her entourage passed our pianos without even a glance. No look, no questions—absolutely nothing. What I observed, which was forever etched in my memory, was her arrogance. There was a deafening air of superiority. She walked coolly past us with her nose in the air. Her patronizing, proud eyes wouldn’t even spare us a glance. Even more devastating was what we heard. One of the Queen’s advisors announced my father’s first ever single-piece, cast-iron frame piano in all of Europe. At this, Her Majesty and her advisors scoffed. One of them even made a crude remark, “What do the Danish know about pianos?” At this comment, arrogant chuckles could be heard among the entourage.
In a split second, the fire in Father’s eyes suddenly went dark. He was devastated. The pride of his country, the pride of his work for the past year went out like a flame. We were all in disbelief. It felt as though time had come to a full stop. We couldn’t move. Almost as if time had frozen, we stood in a daze for hours, long after the Queen and her entourage left the exhibition hallway. I thought, how could this happen? Did we do something wrong? Was the piano not good enough? A sense of defeat enveloped us.
Then something unexpected happened. Mr. Frederick Collier Bakewell, a famed English physicist who showcased a working prototype of a facsimile machine at the Great Exhibition, came up to my dad and said, “My dear Mr. Conrad Hornung, as one pioneer to another, you must please excuse us. The monarchy and the aristocrats are of the opinion that the British empire is superior to all the other nations. Though I am a proud Brit, I know a great thing when I see one and what you have created, Mr. Hornung, is an engineering and artistic masterpiece. Congratulations!” This broke Father’s trance. My father graciously thanked Mr. Bakewell for his kind words.
Although the Queen never gave my father a moment, we were overwhelmed by the enthusiasm and the kindest of words of congratulations from the other attendees. Father’s creation was indeed a one-of-a-kind accomplishment.
As the Great Exhibition came to an end, on our final walk back to the hotel, Father said something I will never forget.
“My dear son, I want you to remember something. Life has its setbacks, but we have to bounce back and never give up. Even if we are slighted by the Queen, we cannot lose faith. It’s unfortunate that the British looks down upon the other countries, but we must believe that we have something to contribute to humankind. Remember that Son. Moreover, we should accept people of different backgrounds. We must not think that we are superior to anybody or any culture.”
The Great Exhibition changed my life forever, but most importantly, it taught me an important lesson. For the rest of my life, I treated others with kindness and respect, irrespective of their background, nationality, religion or views.