Twice The Genius: The Music & Inventions of Józef Hofmann
Polish-born Józef Hofmann was not only a highly acclaimed pianist, respected by the likes of Rachmaninov but also a keen inventor that registered over 70 patents, including a proto-GPS and a solution decreasing the resistive drag of piano keys, still used today in Steinway pianos. His seemingly contradictory interests in music and technology ended up fuelling each other.
Those who knew him claimed Józef Hofmann (1876-1957) didn’t exactly ‘look like a musician.’ According to an anecdote, his hands were rather small for a piano virtuoso but, instead of giving up on playing, he designed his own special instrument which had keys that were narrower than usual. He also doesn’t seem like a typical pianist in a photo where he’s flexing his biceps. His looks were said to have actually been suggestive of a car mechanic. And it just so happened that when Hofmann was twenty-five he… constructed an automobile in which he travelled across Europe. Generally, he had a liking for the field of motorisation which displayed itself through the numerous technical innovations he introduced in it. Among them was a GPS prototype. In an article by Wojciech Brzeziński in the Polish weekly Tygodnik Powszechny, we read:
‘To whom it may concern. I hereby declare that I, Józef Hofmann, subject of the Austro-Hungarian Kaiser, residing in Potsdam, Germany, have invented a helpful improvement of location-showing devices.’ With these words begins the description of a device registered as patent no. 909 798 on 12th January 1909 in the U.S, a device that is a distant ancestor of... GPS navigation. (...) ‘When the map’s scale’ – he writes in the patent application – ‘is suitable for navigating between cities and villages it’s way too small for riding through them. On the other hand, a scale enabling easy navigation through cities is too big for practical use outside of them.’ His solution was a rotating disk with variously-scaled tape maps, the rotation speed of which would automatically adjust itself on shifting from one scale to another. Thanks to this the driver could travel through cities and between them with equal ease.
Shock absorbers constructed by Hofmann were commonly used in cars and planes as late as in the 1940s. The patent enhancing the work of piano keys, which boosts the quality of playing by strongly decreasing the resistive drag accompanying their movement, is still used by Steinway.
Józef Hofmann was born in Kraków. He started learning to play piano at the age of three – at first, it was his sister who was teaching him, later his aunt. When he turned four, his father, a splendid pianist himself, took over his education. In the 27th April 1885-issue of the periodical Echo Muzyczne i Teatralne, we read about the small Hofmann’s talent:
The eight-year-old son of ballet director Hofmann was displaying his piano skills and compositions in front of Anton Rubinstein. The maestro believes there’s a bright future ahead of the child.
The less than ten-year-old Hofmann performed on 6th January 1886 in Warsaw playing Mozart’s Concerto in D minor under the direction of his father. On 7th January 1886, the daily Kurier Warszawski noted:
With yesterday’s appearance, the little virtuoso proved that he has great and precocious talent, highly developed technique and even some individualism.
The young pianist electrified the audiences of Europe’s concert rooms with his playing. In November 1887, at the age of eleven, he performed at Carnegie Hall winning the hearts and souls of New York’s elite. A New York Times critic wrote afterwards that his playing ‘wasn’t extraordinary for a child, it was extraordinary for a man.’
Touring eastern America at the turn of 1887 and 1888, he gave fifty-two concerts in the span of ten weeks. The streak of success was broken only due to a protest from the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, which raised concerns about the boy’s health. A court order prevented the completion of the eighty-concert contract.
However, thanks to the publicity Hofmann gained through his concerts, Alfred Corning Clark, heir to the Singer sewing-machine fortune, granted him a scholarship on the condition that he wouldn’t perform publically before turning eighteen. Fortunately for the young Hofmann, he had other passions aside from playing concerts, namely the exact sciences of maths, physics and chemistry.
Toward the end of 1887, he began corresponding with Thomas Alva Edison looking to use one of Edison’s inventions, a cylindrical device for recording sound. Two years later, after Edison perfected the commercial version of his phonograph, he sent one unit over to Hofmann who, at the time, was in Berlin.
From music to technology
Despite Clark’s terms, the boy didn’t drift away from music. He studied piano, chiefly under Anton Rubinstein, a Russian pianist living in Dresden. In the years 1892-94, he would travel to him for lessons from Berlin on a weekly basis.
In the next fifty years, wherever fortune placed Józef Hofmann, he changed how listeners thought about music. He was held in equal admiration both in Russia and America. Asked about the best pianist in the world, after taking a moment to think, Rachmaninov replied: ‘Well, there’s Hofmann.’
Music always stimulated him as an inventor. The pendulous movement of the metronome rod gave him the idea of constructing windscreen wipers. The invention was appreciated by the Ford car company which began mass producing it. In his book Polacy, którzy Zmienili Świat (editor’s translation: Poles who Changed the World), Marek Borucki writes:
He loved cars. He designed many improvements used by their manufacturers including shock absorbers substantially increasing the comfort of driving. He devised construction solutions implemented in balloons and planes. He came up with the idea for the well-known spiral-shaped heater for boiling water, an electric clock and even a motorboat. It’d be hard to enumerate all of his inventions and technical solutions. Some claim there was over seventy, others that there was about a hundred of them. Of course Hofmann didn’t keep his inventions to himself, he patented most of them which gave him hefty revenues.
He is responsible for the appearance of spring bumpers and pneumatic shock absorbers. These were tested by the New York police which often had to chase criminals over bumpy roads.
They say necessity is the mother of invention and that certainly is true of his improvements linked to playing music. He is said to have begun by constructing piano pedal extensions – the small boy had trouble reaching the foot-operated elements during performances. Pianists owe him for the possibility of regulating the elevation of the piano stool so that it best matches a performer’s height as well as many solutions in piano design, enhancing the comfort of playing and sound emission.
Years after his first visit to the Hofmanns, Arthur Rubinstein wrote the following about it in his book Moje młode lata (editor’s translation: The Years of My Youth):
The thought of meeting the famous Józef Hofmann thrilled me immensely. He was from Kraków, only twenty two at the time but already a great celebrity. In Russia he was considered the only worthy successor to his tutor, the lamented Anton Rubinstein, in the USA on the other hand he was seen as the sole musician capable of competing with Paderewski, a figure much revered there. You can easily picture how terrified I was when I was to play before him. We were greeted with traditional Polish hospitality; especially Hofmann senior, the piano teacher, proved amiable. He was also the only one to carefully listen to me play. The young Józef remained completely indifferent, but when we were getting ready to leave after the musical display had ended, to our surprise he tried to stop us and with this childish pride he started showing us his various knick-knacks. Among them were gifts from the great inventor Thomas Edison, but even though all of this impressed me in the manner expected, I was somewhat disappointed with his apathetic approach toward music.
Others point to the mutual influence between music and technology that occurred in Hofmann’s case. To some when he was playing he seemed more of a well-organised mind than a laid-back artist that spontaneously resonates with the audience’s moods. The pianist Roman Jasiński wrote in his memoirs Zmierzch Starego Świata, Wspomnienia 1900–1945 (editor’s translation: The Decline of the Old World, Memories from the Years 1900 – 1945):
When Hofmann was playing he stuck me as a smart engineer sitting at the console of a miraculous machine, regulating its workings with a great calm and precision.
There’s no doubt that people from the music scene held the famous pianist’s technological skills in high regard. They described it with respect, not questioning their colleague’s accomplishments. It seems, however, that they praised this area of Hofmann’s activity more often than his artistic exploits. Arthur Rubinstein noted:
He was famous for his mechanical skills; regarding the piano, he was mainly interested in possible adaptations of the construction that would affect the height of the keys, string tension or the sound holes.
Thinking process = creative process
Hofmann’s tours of America were always split in half by two months of vacation during which he’d take a break from playing the piano. Instead, he’d play tennis, swim and tinker. Experiments in his workshop resulted in patents for, for example, a regeneration process of battery electrodes, an oil oven and a motorboat. In his book Józef Hofmann. Geniusz Zapomniany. Dzieciństwo i Młodość (editor’s translation: Józef Hofmann. The Forgotten Genius. Childhood and Youth), Jan Żdżarski wrote:
In life there comes a moment when one feels the need to relax, rest and think. So Józef went to the shore to ponder. He watched the ducks swimming in a line… a boat dancing on the wind-amplified waves. How the waves rock it and tell it where to go.
– I’d like to have a boat that doesn’t listen to the wind and waves. One that goes where I want it to. I don’t want to change its course using paddles. I’ll steer it.
According to Hofmann’s biographer, that’s how the concept of the motorboat could’ve been born.
Józef Hofmann was one of those artists to whom the process of creating was inseparably linked to the process of thinking. He warned beginning artists from indulging in being blithe, from following only one’s intuition and avoiding creative effort. Hoffman himself said:
Always be determined when you work, aiming to give all you’ve got. Find a teacher you can rely on and take his advice concerning your career. Don’t give into the illusion that success depends on fate. The most important determinants are your effort, work and wise guidance over you.
He enhanced the system of recording a piano on punched tape, used for operating pianolas. His mechanism could register and play back very subtle differences in loudness characterising a musician’s given performance. Unfortunately for Hofmann, he came up with the invention when pianolas were already going out of use. Borucki writes:
He was the first pianist to record his own music. The first recording of the artist was made by his friend Thomas Edison, who made it using a phonograph of his invention. Sadly, this record has been lost. Edison even urged Hofmann to abandon music for engineering, acknowledging the worth of the pianist’s inventions. Hofmann, however, was capable of being successful in both of these fields.
The boy playing the piano was recorded on special cylinders and they were one of the earliest, if not the first ever, musical recordings. In view of this, it seems a bit of a paradox that when he was at the peak of his fame he wouldn’t allow his music to be recorded, arguing that the level of technical advancement at the time wasn’t good enough to properly register and play back the sound of his instrument. In 1939, a California journalist heard him say that recording is a ‘mechanical process devoid of the human element and the feelings that the performer receives from the audience.’
Edison’s personal secretary, A.O. Tate wrote the following in his memoirs: ‘the invention of the phonograph drew many big names to the laboratory. Among them was Józef Hofmann, a brilliantly talented boy […] who played on some of the earliest records of piano music.’ These were, in fact, the first ever recordings of an acclaimed artist. Józef always announced them with a phrase that was also recorded and phonetically sounded more or less as ‘Im-prohvah-zah-scion bye Yoh-zhef Off-mann’. Tate added that he didn’t know whether the recordings survived because the ‘wax cylinders used to record sound back then quickly broke if they weren’t handled with extraordinary care.’ In the Tygodnik Powszechny article we read:
After Hofmann retired from performing in public he led a rather unhappy life, spending his last years in solitude and silence. He was constantly working on enhancing the methods of recording piano music, he had a home device for recording sound on discs and a modified, six-foot long Steinway piano. He kept experimenting with various devices and novelties, attaching speakers and microphones to different parts of the piano.
Józef Hofmann ended his career at the age of seventy. When ten years later a radio journalist called him with birthday wishes the pianist told him that after he stopped giving concerts, he found time for his hobbies: maths, physics and chemistry. He was still working on enhancing the technology of recording the piano. He passed away a year later.
Author: Janusz R. Kowalczyk, May 2015, adapted/translated by Marek Kępa, Sep 2017
- [Gregor Benko, Józef Hofmann w nagraniach (editor’s tranlation: Józef Hofmann’s Recrodings), the weekly Tygodnik Powszechny, the supplement Józef Hofmann. Ręka geniusza (editor’s translation: Józef Hofmann. Hand of a Genius, 10th May 2015]
- [Marek Borucki, Polacy, którzy zmienili świat, (editor’s translation: ‘Poles who Changed the World’, Warsaw 2015]
- [Józef Hofmann, Piano Playing with piano questions answered, New York 1976]
- [Jan Żdżarski, Józef Hofmann. Geniusz zapomniany. Dzieciństwo i młodość (editor’s translation: Józef Hofmann. The Forgotten Genius. Childhood and Youth), Bielsko-Biała 2002]
- [Arthur Rubinstein, Moje długie życie (editor’s translation: My Long Life), Kraków 1988]
- [Roman Jasiński, Zmierzch starego świata, Wspomnienia 1900–1945 (editor’s translation: The Decline of the Old World, Memories from the Years 1900 – 1945), Kraków 2006]
- [Arthur Rubinstein, Moje młode lata (editor’s translation: The Years of My Youth), Kraków 1986]
- [A zatem... do pracy! (editor’s translation: Well then… let’s Work!), the peridoical Echo Muzyczne i Teatralne, 27th April 1885]
- [Wojciech Brzeziński, Ulepszacz (editor’s translation: The Improver), the weekly Tygodnik Powszechny, the supplement Józef Hofmann. Ręka geniusza (editor’s translation: Józef Hofmann. Hand of a Genius, 10th May 2015]