Joseph Hunter Dickinson, the black craftsman who built the largest piano ever in the 1880s

Stephen Nartey April 24, 2023
Joseph Hunter Dickinson/Photo credit: The Painola Institute

It wasn’t clear which career path Joseph Hunter Dickinson wanted to take in 1870 when he was employed by the United States Revenue Service as a revenue cutter. When his responsibility with the revenue office ended, he got a job with Clough & Warren Organ Company at the age of 17 – the company was reputed for making large organs in the world at the time. From 1873 to 1916, they made over 5,000 organs per year.

They commanded so much goodwill, enough to convince Queen Victoria of England and other monarchs to purchase their organs. It was at Clough & Warren Organ that Joseph discovered his affinity for organs, however, he was patient in walking the ropes of the craft. He spent a decade learning the workings of the job.

When he resigned to explore other opportunities, he thought the best thing to do was to set up his own company – which he did, in partnership with his father-in-law, and named it Dickinson & Gould Organ Company. What carved Joseph into the history books was his participation in the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, where he designed one of the largest ever organs in history. It won a prize at the exposition. Since then, it’s been one of the outstanding inventions placed at the church.

There hasn’t been any such visible vocal instrument of such magnitude. Joseph also participated in other exhibitions showcasing the accomplishments of African Americans. According to the Black Wall Street Times, he presented an organ at the New Orleans Exposition of 1884, after which he relinquished his interest to his father-in-law and turned his attention to building another new entity he formed, Clough & Warren Organ Company.

With the improvements he made to the organs he built around this period, he filed for patents to protect his intellectual rights. These included upgrades to reed organs and volume-controlling mechanisms. This patent protected his invention and allowed him to further develop and commercialize his innovation.

His pianola invention brought a new level of convenience and entertainment to music lovers, as it allowed for playing the piano in forward or reverse. This piano was a remarkable achievement, showcasing his expertise in piano manufacturing and design. It was known for its size and grandeur and was a testament to his skill and creativity as an inventor.

The company later diversified into other areas by manufacturing phonographs – Joseph’s contributions to the field of music technology were groundbreaking, and his inventions continue to impact the music industry to this day. His pianola invention paved the way for the development of modern player pianos and automated music systems, which are still used in various forms today.

His ingenuity and creativity as a Black inventor have left a lasting legacy in the world of music and technology. Despite facing challenges in the late 19th century, Joseph’s achievements and contributions to the field of music technology are significant and deserve recognition. His innovations in piano design and manufacturing have left a mark on the history of music, and his legacy as a pioneering Black inventor continues to inspire and pave the way for future generations.

Last Edited by:Annie-Flora Mills Updated: April 24, 2023


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