Historical research can sometimes lead you into unexpected places. I have recently been following my interest in the Industrial Revolution by looking into the life and inventions of Malachi “Utility” Satterthwaite, the famously dour engineer and inventor of several radical loom modifications. In an obscure Huddersfield archive I stumbled across his journal from the 1840s, detailing his little-known trip to Paris to investigate French silk-weaving technology.
Satterthwaite clearly did not enjoy his stay in the City of Light. Shocked by the licentiousness, appalled by the “fancy foreign food” and unable to find a Primitive Methodist Chapel within 5 miles of Montmartre, he spent much of his time alone in his lodgings, looking at blueprints of looms.
Yet even here he was sorely tested. He had paid in advance for two months in an apartment in the house of a Mme Janos-Hary in the Place d’Orleans, in what he had hoped would be a nice quiet part of town, and had apparently been assured by Mme Janos-Hary – in a conversation he describes as “difficult, but facilitated with the aid of a large ear-trumpet” – that her house was a quiet and sober establishment with no noisy tenants.
After two nights, it dawned on Satterthwaite that Madame’s impressions of quietitude was due to her deafness, and that the house not only was frequented by her Hungarian compatriot Franz Liszt, breaking her piano with disturbing regularity, but that his own apartment – 14b – was sandwiched between “a Polack named Showpan who ceases his wretched piano-bashing only to cough for minutes on end”, and “a Jew named Al Cann, seemingly suspended under a top hat as big as he is, who alternates between jumping up and down on his piano keyboard and babbling in Hebrew”.
It appear that these are his phonetic Yorkshire renderings of the names of [Frederic] Chopin and [Charles-Valentin] Alkan, both recognised as notable piano virtuosi and composers in their own right, who did indeed occupy flats in the same building at this time.
Fascinated by this collision of visionary genius with some men who played the piano, I read on. Robbed of sleep, repose and time to ponder patentable loom modifications, he grew agitated and began to contemplate revenge on those who saw as responsible. Coming home late one evening in December 1848, Satterthwaite found a brick lying on the pavement and “on looking up at the window of my tormentor, was seized by a sudden desire for revenge. The first flurries of snow were falling, and I watched the brick, seemingly propelled by itself and not by my suddenly outstretched arm, follow an inexorable parabolic arc upwards and through Showpan’s window with a satisfying crash.” The sound of policemen’s boots beating a hasty path towards the noise convinced Satterthwaite to duck inside the house, trusting that the act of vandalism should be ascribed to a partisan of the recently deposed Second Republic.
It is well known that December 1848 was the point at which Chopin’s underlying tuberculosis took a sudden turn for the worse, leading to his death within months; until now the pivotal role of the smashed window in a snowstorm has remained hidden.
Satterthwaite was soon to return to Yorkshire, his blueprints duly modified, yet fate had one more role for him. Three nights after the Chopin incident, he was disturbed from Alkan’s apartment the other side, with a thundering passage which from his meagre description would seem to be the Concert Etude “Le Preux”.
Enraged beyond control, Satterthwaite began to hammer on the wall relentlessly: “There was a creak, the piano abuse ceased for a moment to be replaced with a whimper of alarm and footsteps coming in my direction. A moment later there was a resounding crash, the house shook, and after one pitiful yell all noise ceased. Satisfied, I returned to bed and slept undisturbed for the first time in weeks.”
The date is missing from the diary entry, but the incident described can only have been Alkan’s untimely death under a falling bookcase.
Many have wondered whether Satterthwaite’s visionary design for converting grand pianos into steam-powered submersibles was inspired by his time in Paris, but the causal link now seems beyond doubt.
Smith, Ronald (2000) “Alkan: The Man, the Music”
Samson, Jim (1996) “The Cambridge Companion to Chopin”
“Where to Stay in Paris”, 1846 edition
Satterthwaite, M (1844-73): Journals (unpublished)
de Cuisine, J (forthcoming): Building Satterthwaite’s 1853 Steam Submersible Piano
Jeff de Cuisine has recently been involved in a pioneering experiment in industrial archaeology, building a replica of Satterthwaite’s 1853 Steam Submersible Piano, which can currently be seen at the bottom of the Calder and Hebble Navigation.