A Christian College of the Liberal Arts & Sciences


John Watson ’74 followed his passion for early keyboard instruments to a career of building and preserving them at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. His dual titles are conservator of instruments and mechanical arts; and associate curator of musical instruments.

“I occasionally wonder what my career would have been, had I not been exposed to serendipitous bits of stimuli at Houghton,” says Watson, who first discovered early keyboard instruments as a student when someone donated to the Houghton music department a clavichord, a small, stringed, rectangular keyboard instrument. “Within hours of seeing it, I planned to somehow make a clavichord of my own.”

Disassembling the parts of an old Victorian piano, Watson reused the piano keys, lumber, and tuning pins. With the addition of strings and a sound board, he successfully constructed his first clavichord.

Later in his Houghton tenure, Watson also built a harpsichord, a similar keyboard instrument that produces sound by plucking a string when a key is pressed.

Leading up to his appointment at Colonial Williamsburg, Watson built 32 keyboard instruments, including harpsichords, clavichords, pianos and regals. His focus has since shifted to museum work.

Watson’s fascination also led him to author the book Changing Keys: Keyboard Instruments for America, 1700- 1830, which examines the keyboard culture of America in the colonial and federal eras. For more about Watson’s work, visit www.preservationtheory.org