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Published online by Cambridge University Press:  21 January 2010


John Lawrence Geib has remained an often-cited but poorly known builder of keyboard instruments since the eighteenth century. Although historians have noted his patent for an escapement mechanism used on early English square pianos after 1787, little has been written about him, and much of that has now proven to be incomplete or untrue. A letter written by Geib to Benjamin Franklin has recently been made public. It outlines his early years in London and provides the foundation for further research into the remaining records and extant instruments. This information allows one to draw a more complete and historically correct picture of Geib and to place him in perspective with the other builders operating at the time. This article gives new details about his principal invention – the escapement mechanism – and the nature of his business during his early years in London. A full reproduction of the patent is included as an appendix.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2010

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1 This date of Geib's death is often given as 1818. However, according to Gildersleeve the inscription on Geib's tomb reads: ‘Sacred to the memory of John Geib, who departed this life Oct. 30, 1819 in the 75th year of his age. A native of Staudernheim, Germany, and for many years a respectable inhabitant of this city.’ Alger C. Gildersleeve, John Geib and His Seven Children (Far Rockaway: no publisher, 1945; reprinted Salem, MA: Higginson Genealogical Books, 1987), 9. The inscription was reportedly lost in the attack on the World Trade Center in 2001.

2 Richard Maunder, ‘The Earliest English Square Piano?’, The Galpin Society Journal 62 (1989), 77–84.

3 Michael Cole, The Pianoforte in the Classical Era (Oxford: Clarendon, 1998), 61.

4 In an advertisement announcing his move from Hanover Square to Cavendish Square, Zumpe described himself as ‘Inventor of the small Piano Forte, and Maker to her Majesty and the Royal Family’. The Gazetteer and New Daily Advertiser (London) 15711 (Monday, 21 June 1779), 3. The British Library Newspaper Collections, available through Gale Digital Collections, British Newspapers 1600–1900 <> (5 August 2009). Hereafter Gale.

5 Cole, Pianoforte in the Classical Era, 52, 69.

6 Gildersleeve, John Geib, 7, 9.

7 Johann Christian Dressler, ‘Das Geschlecht der Staudernheimer Geib in Bukowina’, in Bukowina: Heimat von Gestern, ed. Erwin Massier, Josef Talsky and B. C. Grigorowicz, second edition (Karlsruhe: Arbeitskreis Bukowina Heimatbuch, 1956), no page number.

8 For an image of an organ by Johann Georg Geib see the image at Partenheim evangelische Kirche <> (10 August 2009).

9 John Nisbet and Jürgen Rodeland, ‘An Introduction to the Organbuilding Tradition of the Middle Rhine’, <> (10 August 2009).

10 This is a slightly revised version of the letter which is transcribed in full at The Franklin Papers at Yale <>, ed. Ellen R. Cohn and others (3 August 2009), after careful scrutiny of the original. We thank Ellen Cohn of Yale University for providing a copy of this letter, courtesy of the American Philosophical Society, and for discussions on its interpretation.

11 The Evening Post 1103 (New York, 7 June 1805), 2. The authors are grateful to Michael Kassler for bringing this advertisement to their attention.

12 Anne Swartz, ‘Technological Muses: Piano Builders in Russia, 1810–1881’, Cahiers du monde russe 43/1 (2002), 119–138.

13 Darcy Kuronen, ‘Where is the Princess's Piano?’ Newsletter of the American Musical Instrument Society 35/1 (2006), 10, 11.

14 The World (London) 2341 (Saturday, 28 June 1794), 4. Accessed through The British Library newspaper collections, available through Gale (April 2009).

15 The catalogue record for this item can be viewed at The National Archives online, UK, c97/1 <> (May 2008–August 2009). Denization was a process by which foreigners received certain rights of English citizens, including the right to hold land. It preceded processes of naturalization.

16 Warwick H. Cole, ‘The Early Piano in Britain Reconsidered’, Early Music 14/4 (1986), 563–566.

17 Edward F. Rimbault, The Pianoforte, Its Origin, Progress, and Construction (London: Robert Cocks, 1860), 131.

18 A more detailed discussion of the biographies of those whose names have been included among the mythical twelve apostles can be found in Michael Cole, ‘The Twelve Apostles? An Inquiry into the Origins of the English Pianoforte’, Early Keyboard Journal 18 (2000), 9–52.

19 Michael Cole, Broadwood Square Pianos: Their Historical Context and Technical Development (Cheltenham: Tatchley, 2005), 14–15.

20 Donald Boalch, Makers of the Harpsichord and Clavichord, 1440–1840 (London: George Donald, 1956), 34.

21 Gildersleeve, John Geib, 7.

22 For an examination of the surviving evidence concerning women's roles in firms making musical instruments see Jenny Nex, ‘Women in the Musical Instrument Trade in London, 1750–1810’, in Instrumental Music and the Industrial Revolution: International Conference Proceedings, Cremona, 1–3 July 2006, ed. Roberto Illiano and Luca Sala (Bologna: Ut Orpheus, 2009).

23 Julie Aronson and Marjorie Weiseman, Perfect Likeness: European and American Portrait Miniatures from the Cincinnati Art Museum (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2006), 164.

24 Will of Charles Lukey, The National Archives (TNA): Public Records Office (PRO) PROB 10/2721, J–P, signed in February 1774 with a codicil dated 17 October 1775 and proven on 2 May 1777. Lukey's christening took place in Cornwall in 1740, and, assuming he was christened soon after his birth, he would have been thirty-six at the time of his death. International Genealogical Index, Cornwall, consulted at the Guildhall Library, London: ‘Lukey, Charles of Charles Lukey & Grace christened 5 Nov 1740 Falmouth’.

25 The figures assume that the discount given to high-volume distributors was the equivalent of that given by Broadwood. Cole, Broadwood Square Pianos, 56.

26 Jenny Nex and Lance Whitehead, ‘Musical Instrument Making in Georgian London, 1753–1809: Evidence from the Proceedings of the Old Bailey and the Middlesex Sessions of the Peace’, Eighteenth-Century Music 2/2 (2005), 257. For further information about the ‘putting-out system’ see J. A. Sharpe, Early Modern England: A Social History 1550–1760 (London: Edward Arnold, 1987), 144.

27 The authors wish to thank Graham Gadd for providing information concerning these instruments (personal correspondence).

28 Proceedings of the Old Bailey <> (June to October 2008), reference number t17850511-14.

29 John Ogasapian, Organ Building in New York City: 1700–1900 (Braintree: The Organ Literature Foundation, 1977), 28–32.

30 The World (London) 2341 (Saturday, 28 June 1794), 4. Accessed through Gale (April 2009).

31 Voltaire reportedly remarked, ‘Compared to the magnificent harpsichord, the piano forte is but a tinker's kettle, an iron monger's instrument’. Edwin M. Good, Giraffes, Black Dragons, and Other Pianos, second edition (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2001), 65.

32 A dentil is one of a series of closely spaced rectangular blocks that form a moulding.

33 According to Martha Novak Clinkscale, Maffei first reported Cristofori's invention, the gravicembalo col piano e forte, in 1711. The earliest surviving example dates from 1720 and is now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Clinkscale, Makers of the Piano 1700–1820 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), 80.

34 Cole, Pianoforte in the Classical Era, 101–104.

35 Paul Banks, Lance Whitehead and Jenny Nex, Royal College of Music, Centre for Performance History, London Music Trades 1750–1800 Person Records database <> (6 August 2009), TNA: PRO IR 1/33 folio 65.

36 This piano appeared in a Piano Auctions Ltd (London) auction in September 2005, but did not sell, and to our knowledge it remains in private hands.

37 This practice is widely acknowledged to have been common among makers, but it has been difficult to find references in the historical record that would prove this beyond a doubt.

38 Geib's address appears in an advertisement in The Morning Post and Daily Advertiser (London) 1658 (Thursday, 12 February 1778), 4. Accessed through Gale (April 2009).

39 The collage resulted from the need to insert a micro-camera into the mouse hole at close quarters, and then to assemble the resulting images to form a whole.

40 This piano is owned by the National Parks Service, Manhattan Sites, New York, catalogue number 1413.

41 Nex and Whitehead, ‘Musical Instrument Making in Georgian London’, 251–271.

42 John Geib, The Spectator (New York), 19 March 1800. As quoted and discussed in Ogasapian, Organ Building in New York City, 24.

43 Jenny Nex, ‘Culliford and Company: Keyboard Instrument Makers in Georgian London’, Early Keyboard Journal 22 (2004), 7–48.

44 Lance Whitehead and Jenny Nex, ‘Keyboard Instrument Building in London and the Sun Insurance Records, 1775–87’, Early Music 30/1 (2002), 5–25.

45 The authors are grateful to Lance Whitehead for this information.

46 The London Gazette 13516 (2 April 1793), 5 <> (18 August 2009).

47 Nex, ‘Culliford and Company’, 7–48.

48 TNA: PRO E112/1771/5631, Longman, Broderip & their assignees vs Culliford, Rolfe & Barrow, filed 5th November 1795. Culliford & Co claimed that Geib & Goldsworth imitated any improvements they made to their pianos and sold the instruments on to Longman & Broderip.

49 The Times (London) 2839 (Friday, 22 November 1793), 1, accessed through Gale (August 2009).

50 The Morning Chronicle (London), Wednesday, 29 January 1794, issue 7695, 4. Accessed through Gale (April 2009).

51 Banks, Whitehead and Nex, London Music Trades 1750–1800 Person Records database <> (6 August 2009).

52 The London Gazette 9020–17664 (Tuesday, 1 January 1751, to Saturday, 30 December 1820) <> (May 2007 – August 2009).

53 The Morning Chronicle (London) 13007 (Wednesday, 16 January 1811), 4. Accessed through Gale (April 2009).

54 Indeed, as reported by Bozarth and Debenham, Leukfeld signed a seven-year agreement with Broderip & Wilkinson in 1801 to supply them exclusively with pianos at the rate of three per week. Leukfeld was not to make pianos for anyone else without their written agreement; they, in turn, would purchase these instruments from no other maker. The surviving evidence for this arrangement is found in a court case between the two parties which indicates that neither Leukfeld nor Broderip & Wilkinson was able to fulfil their obligations. The lawsuit and presumably the agreement closed with no further demands on either side. Interestingly, Leukfeld lists the sales he made of pianos to individuals and firms other than Broderip & Wilkinson, which amounted to thirty-three in 1802, fifty-one in 1803, ninety-eight in 1804 and one hundred and thirty-seven in 1805. Banks, Whitehead and Nex, London Music Trades 1750–1800 Person Records database, TNA: PRO C13/2415/7, 1806. See George S. Bozarth and Margaret Debenham, ‘Piano Wars: The Legal Machinations of London Pianoforte Makers, 1795–1806’, Royal Musical Association Research Chronicle 42 (2009), 75–79 and Appendix 6.

55 Rosamond E. M. Harding, The Piano-Forte, Its History Traced to the Great Exhibition of 1851, revised edition (London: Heckscher, 1978), 394–396.

56 This figure is suggested by Michael Cole based on the mark-up on square pianos by Broadwood. Cole, Broadwood Square Pianos, 56.

57 Harding, The Piano-Forte, 395–396.

58 The estimation: 150 pianos per year at £10 each paid by Longman & Broderip would have yielded Geib £1,500. An additional fifty pianos per year sold to other shops or under Geib's name would have added no less than £500 to his income. At least two organs were known to have been built in London, and these were sold for about £300 each, of which about a half or two thirds was profit. Averaged over the twelve years between 1785 and 1797, these calculations yield £25–£30 per year. Pedal harps and sheet music were obviously sold as well.

59 Banks, Whitehead and Nex, London Music Trades 1750–1800 Person Records database, TNA: PRO C12/178/48, Smith v Longman, 1791.

60 Liza Picard, Dr Johnson's London (London: Phoenix, 2000), 55. These figures are based on Joseph Massie's statistics of average family incomes, compiled in 1759.

61 Cole, Pianoforte in the Classical Era, 101–104.

62 Banks, Whitehead and Nex, London Music Trades 1750–1800 Person Records database, TNA: PRO C13/29/34, 1802. This transaction is discussed in detail in Bozarth and Debenham, ‘Piano Wars’, 59.

63 New York City Department of Records, Municipal Archives, Assessed Valuation Record, Ward 5, New York, 1808, 49. We thank Kenneth Cobb of the Municipal Archives, New York, for conducting the tax search and providing a copy of the record.

64 Mabel Almy Howe, ‘Music Publishers in New York City before 1850’, Bulletin of the New York Public Library 21/9 (1917), 10.

65 Proceedings of the Old Bailey <> (June to October 2008), reference number t17960406-85.

66 Harding, The Piano-Forte, 395–396.