A Harpsichord Primer
reducto ad gizmo
The harpsichord is that family of keyboard instruments which are plucked, not struck, by the key mechanism. It has served as the major string keyboard instrument for substantially longer than its descendant the piano, and still at the end of the millenium is much in use, both in early music performance and in various new applications.
There are perhaps three distinctions which help catagorize the instruments. There are national schools (chiefly Flemish, Italian, French, German, and English), time frame (conveniently thought of by century - 16th, 17th, 18th, and 20th), and instrument type (harpsichord, spinette, virginal, but with several rich and strange variations, such as the lautenwerk or the clavicyntherium).
The history of the harpsichord is somewhat odd in that it contains a dramatic hiatus: harpsichord making simply died in the nineteenth century (a victim, some will argue, of Romanticism) and was only revived again in the twentieth. At first the revival engendered some very different kinds of instruments indeed, and it is only in the second half of the century that we find the emphasis again on early styles of building. We are able then to make the additional distinction between historic, revival, and modern instruments.