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What's the Common Point Between Pianos and Motorcycles?

2024-03-26 00:00:00 / episode: 379


What’s the common point between pianos and motorcycles? Today I’m gonna talk about their similar point and it might surprise you, but first I have to introduce a guy called Alpheus Babcock because his invention is the link to motorcycles.

Hi, and welcome to the Les Perras podcast episode number 379. Today’s episode is about pianos, motorcycles and Alpheus Babcock.

The problem

Pianos were invented around 1700 and they took the music world by storm. Except there was a problem with them: they were difficult to hear. If you played in a small room with a small audience it was fine. But you could not use them to accompany an orchestra. The other instruments would drown out the piano.
The problem was the strings. To make the larger sounds, you needed to pull the strings tighter and tighter. Eventually, you had to pull them so much that they broke the frame of the piano. This brings us to our main character.

The Inventor

Alpheus Babcock enjoyed making pianos and organs.
He and his brother formed a company to make organs right from the start. He wanted to make better pianos for the musicians.
It was the start of the industrial revolution and new materials were coming on hand. He noticed that some other piano makers were using iron braces in the frames of the pianos; This improved the sound, but not enough for him. Then inspiration struck.
He decided to make his frames completely from iron. This had two main benefits. Before I say what they are, we have to take a quick look at motorcycles.

Motorcycle Engines

The engine of a motorcycle is a finely tuned thing.
It may just look like a big piece of iron but there's a lot of science in the engine. You see, the pistons are stroking back and forth several thousand times per minute. The engine has to be very very hard to withstand that for years. This is one of the qualities of the cast iron engine: It is very hard.
Yet, interestingly, it has another quality at the same time: it is flexible. The cast iron can expand and contract with the range of temperatures to prevent warping and changing size or shape. So what about the piano frame?
I said that it has two main benefits.

The Two Virtues

Coming back to the cast iron frame of the piano, Babcock was lucky to discover that it had two virtues. First, it was strong. He could pull the strings far, far tighter than on a wooden frame. In fact, he could even use steel strings and pull them even tighter.
This was the first sound boost.
The sound coming off the strings was much more robust. But in addition to the strength, the cast iron frame had a second, more subtle quality. The core of the cast iron frame was slightly flexible.
This meant that the vibrations from the string were passed into the frame. Then the frame itself began to vibrate and make the sound even larger.
Now the modern performance piano was born.

The Common Points

So what do motorcycle Engines and pianos have in common? It is the cast iron that is used in them. It is the same industrial quality cast iron in each one. That's because the qualities that make grey cast iron good for motorcycle engines are the same qualities that make it good for pianos. The hard strength and the subtle flexibility.