Monday, 21 December 2015

A Short History of Pianos and Maritime Safety


In the Summer of 1893, a man took a trip on an ocean liner that was hit one night by a raging hurricane. Next morning, he found himself floating amidst the remains of the broken ship and its contents. Nearby, he saw the lid of the ship’s grand piano gently bobbing about in the water - and clambered on top. It swayed a little, but held his weight. This was where his rescuers found him, three days later – dehydrated, disorientated, but remarkably, still alive.


Upon his safe return, many heard this story and asked whether anything could be learned from this catastrophe. The government created a committee of learned men who set up an enquiry. After much deliberation, they solemnly recommended corrective legislation on the matter – and so a law was passed. ‘No ship will go to sea without carrying on board enough grand pianos to support the bodies of its entire crew and passengers, should it happen to sink.’ A few correspondents suggested that the legislative process had been inordinately rushed through in response to an unwelcome clamour in the popular press, but they were ignored. Something had now been done, and so the government could now move on to weightier matters.

Unfortunately, there were problems. Smaller vessels such as canoes, rowing boats and sailing yachts, couldn’t support the weight of a grand piano. Larger ships found that after taking on the right number of pianos, there was little space left for crew or passengers. ‘Where am I going to fit 150 pianos on my blasted ferry, then?’ demanded one captain, quite reasonably.

So the government had to think again - and set up another enquiry. Should they make the pianos smaller? Would two or more people fit on a grand piano? Could the pianos be made out of a lighter wood? Experts were consulted. The Bechstein piano company argued that using lighter wood was completely out of the question, declaring ‘If it’s not mahogany, then it’s not a Bechstein!’ (Mahogany forests in Africa and Asia were meanwhile, rapidly being depleted in response to the new demand.) Some piano-players also complained that there was very little space to put the piano-stool on a normal-sized yacht, whilst the watery atmosphere did nothing for the tuning.

The government decided on a reasonable compromise. Larger ships would still have to carry the right number of grand pianos, one for each person, but they could be made smaller, and would not need to have the full number of piano keys. In extreme cases, large ships would be allowed not to carry any pianos, providing they were accompanied by another ship that carried enough pianos both for itself and its piano-less partner. For every five pianos, a piano-player would need to be employed, and for ships with a crew of ten or less, then one crew-member would need to be given piano lessons to reach at least Grade 3. Smaller vessels would have just one piano that could be towed behind the ship ready for emergencies, whilst the captain would be required to learn the basic notes of ‘Chopsticks’. Very small vessels were told to just not bother going out to sea at all.

More problems ensued. One music-loving captain requested that all the pianists on his ship performed a piece simultaneously, in honour of his mother’s 67th birthday. Unfortunately, this resulted in them all simultaneously reaching for the lower keys, causing a massive list and the eventual capsizing of the vessel. The resulting (inevitable) enquiry recommended that no more than 50% of a ship’s pianists be allowed to play the same tune at any one time. A further enquiry also recommended the commissioning of piano works by distinguished composers that made most use of the middle notes on the keyboard, with simultaneous flourishes towards higher and lower notes that would balance each other out. This ‘Safety on the High Cs’ initiative led to the creation of some startling compositions, some of which were even played twice.  

Further incidents and enquiries led to more legislation. No piano was to be allowed to leave its factory without first passing a stringent test for seaworthiness. Every piano was to be supplied with paddles fitted as standard, with a week’s supply of emergency rations and a telescopic mast to carry a makeshift sail. All sheet music would be printed on rice paper containing five essential vitamins. The National Union of Seamen merged with the National Union of Musicians, and every ship’s captain was presented with a conductor’s baton.

The 23rd enquiry into Maritime Safety followed on from a disastrous maiden voyage in 1912 of the Royal Navy’s first working steam-powered submarine, which successfully completed its first dive but then resolutely failed to do anything else afterwards. Poor evacuation procedures were thought to have contributed to the high loss of life, due to the crew’s inability to get the requisite number of pianos out through the escape hatches before drowning themselves. Recommendations were made into exploring the radical idea of creating a collapsible or inflatable grand piano to meet such a need in future, but the original submarine stayed on the seabed, its location only revealed when changes of tide led to an audible shifting of the pianos on its crew deck. As they worked at their nets, local fishermen testified to hearing strange melodies wafting across the waves, reminiscent of the work of George Frederick Handel - or was it Scott Joplin?


The outbreak of war in 1914 focussed minds more clearly. A world shortage of mahogany, coupled with a new fashion for the repertoire of military brass bands, made the piano a questionable means of preserving lives at sea. Finally, a simple round belt was developed for seamen to ‘wear’ as they abandoned ship, although it was heartily disliked in the popular press for not being sufficiently ‘British’. 

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Any requests of subjects for future posts in 2016? No idea too stupid for consideration. And yes, I know I am a bad writer, so don't bother saying that unless you can write something better. But maybe there's a topic buzzing around in your head that you'd like to see covered... because I've got a keyboard here, it's loaded with letters, and I ain't afraid to use it.