‘Eighty Eight Pianists’ is a project created by Julian Allwood, professor of engineering and the environment at the University of Cambridge. Allwood wanted to both mark the 500th anniversary of Leonardo da Vinci’s death and answer a simple question: has the smartphone killed invention?

To find the answer, engineering researchers at the AMRC, and seven other universities, were challenged to support Key Stage 2 children from across the country. The aim is to ‘fuse science and art’, and beat the world record, which currently stands at 21 people playing the same piano.

“By inventing mechanical finger extenders we can have one person play each note, making 88 pianists,” says Allwood. “Hearing about da Vinci’s inventions, and learning how a piano works, the children have been working together with the engineering teams to design and build mechanical fingers that are extendable.

“We’ve had nearly 2,100 pupils across the country invent ideas for how we could play a piano from nearly 5 m away, and the whole team had the most fantastic time looking through these incredible inventions,” he continues. “We were amazed at how clever and bright the children have been in coming up with ideas that we didn’t expect. Our aim now is to harness that creativity. The engineering teams will work with the children to turn those seemingly impossible ideas into real life inventions, which will be used to smash the world record in August this year.”

In Birmingham, 88 young piano students will be taught how to use the mechanical fingers. Once trained, they will play a newly commissioned piece composed by Martin Riley and conducted by Julian Lloyd Webber, and break the world record at the opening ceremony of the 69th CIRP (International Academy for Production Engineering) General Assembly on 19 August.

Senior technical fellow, Dr Erdem Ozturk, who is conducting the AMRC’s contribution to the project, says: “There is potential in every child to be an inventor. Our role is to unlock that inventive, problem-solving impulse and challenge perceptions about engineering in the classroom: and what better way to do that than by combining science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), with art and music.”

Erdem and his team will go now back to school to help the children manufacture their designs for use in the world record attempt.

“As engineers at the AMRC, we have the opportunity to be great STEM ambassadors, and we are keen to help foster the children’s sense of creativity by showing that seemingly different subjects like music and engineering have something in common: creativity,” he concludes. “It will be great to go back to the schools and help the children manufacture the winning designs. Getting them involved in the process from start to finish will give them a real sense of achievement; watching their designs come to life for the world-record attempt.”