The History of the Player Piano

The idea of automatic musical devices can be traced back many centuries. The idea of using pinned barrels to operate percussion mechanisms (such as striking bells in a clock) was perfected long before the invention of the piano. These devices were later extended to operate musical boxes, which contain a set of tuned metal teeth plucked by the player mechanism.

An early musical instrument to be automated was the organ, which is comparatively easy to operate automatically. The power for the notes is provided by air from a bellows system, and the organist or player device only has to operate a valve to control the available air. The playing task is ideally performed by a pinned barrel, and the art of barrel organs was well advanced by the mid eighteenth century.

The pianoforte is a complex instrument, requiring each note to be struck with a different force to control the dynamics of the performance. The entire force required to sound the note must be given by the performer hitting the keys. It proved to be difficult for a player device to combine a variable percussive force and a controlled note duration. Barrels do not provide a percussive force, but a relatively gentle switching motion.

Early barrel pianos move the hammer back and forwards continuously as the operator turns the handle, but the hammers do not strike the strings until moved slightly forwards by a pin in the barrel. The hammers hit repeatedly until the pin is removed. This plays the note, but at a fixed dynamic and with a tremolo action quite unlike a pianist.

The development of the player piano was the gradual overcoming of the various difficulties of controlled percussive striking and note duration. The earliest practical piano playing device was probably the Forneaux Pianista, which used compressed air to inflate a bellows when the barrel pin opened a valve. This bellows struck the piano key and so played the note.

The acceleration of developments leading to the pneumatic ‘player’ device started in the 1840s and began to reach some recognizable device in the 1870s. The start of the player period can probably be seen as the Centennial Exposition of 1876 in Philadelphia, USA. At this exhibition were a number of automatic player devices, including the Pianista, that contained the elements which would lead to the player.

Early Patents

The earliest description of a piano playing device using perforated paper rolls was Claude Seytre’s French patent of 1842. The concept was sound, but the device described was impractical in the way it read the roll and operated the piano.

In 1847 the inventor Alexander Bain described a device that used a paper roll as a ‘travelling valve’ that allowed air to flow through the reeds of a reed organ. Simple reed and pipe organs using this sort of system are still being produced. However, the air flow is not sufficient to drive a piano mechanism. In 1848 Charles Dawson of England described a more complex travelling valve device which added little to Bain.

Hunt & Bradish of the USA, 1849 , used a roll read by sprung fingers, the springs being strong enough to operate the piano mechanism directly. This device applied the entire playing strength to the paper, so would have shredded it rapidly, and the device would have had to be as wide as the piano keyboard!

In 1851 Pape, England, submitted a patent that recognized the need to remove the playing force from the paper, using light springs to read the roll and activate a more robust device which plays the note – a mechanical amplifier.

The first device to address the practical requirement of operating a piano mechanism was Forneaux’s, of 1863. This recognized that a hard strike was needed to throw the hammer towards the keys. It used a traditional barrel, but tripped a pneumatic device that inflated bellows rapidly to operate the note. In 1871 a perforated cardboard book was substituted for the barrel, but it was still read using sprung fingers. This device entered manufacture, and is generally regarded as the first practical player device. It was exhibited in Philadelphia in 1876.

Van Dusen’s American patent of 1867 was the first to describe a pneumatic striker operated by a roll. It was probably based on the work of John McTammany.

A leap in thought occurred in the 1873 patent of the Schmoele brothers. They described a ‘double valve’ system which acted as a pneumatic amplifier, reading the roll electrically and operating the pneumatic with an electromagnet. They also exhibited at Philadelphia. With some modification, and pneumatic reading of the roll, this would become the final player piano some 20 years later, although the Schmoele brothers never benefitted from it.

In 1876, John McTammany exhibited a working player in Philadelphia that used a paper roll read using sprung fingers whose slight movement triggered a mechanical player device. This operated a reed organ. McTammany had been experimenting since the mid 1860s, and went on to be one of the key names in the early player industry. He claimed to be the inventor of the ‘player’, but not the ‘player piano’ – an important distinction.

Summary: in 1876, in Philadelphia, three working devices were exhibited that between them contained almost all the components that the final player piano would require. However, it was to be 20 years before all these aspects were combined. Surprisingly, the missing component was the pneumatic reading of the roll. This was in all probability due to the lack of suitably flexible airtight material to translate the air flow into the mechanical movement needed to trigger the player device

1876 – 1890

Following the Philadelphia exhibition, the mechanical music business began to grow rapidly. Various companies were founded in the later 1870s to manufacture and sell automated reed organs. Most significant to the development of the player piano was the Aeolian Company, founded as the Mechanical Orguinette Company in 1878, initially as retailer of small reed organs made by the Munroe Organ Company and others.

These instruments started out with valveless actions, the air flowing through the paper operating the reed directly. Throughout this period, the instruments grew larger and more complex, and valves were added to switch the air flow, so ensuring faster response and requiring smaller holes in the paper.The idea of incorporating the new player devices into pianos developed over this period. Needham filed a patent in 1880 describing a pneumatic player device in a piano.

The main technical development of this period was the double valve system, which enabled machines to switch the volume of air needed to operate piano actions. The valves effectively worked as amplifiers, a small air flow being used to switch a much large volume of air.

Inventors persisted with the early cumbersome mechanical linkage systems for a long time, although the valve system was considerable simpler. The main reason for this appears to be that no suitable airtight thin leather was available to make the small pouches which inflate to operate the valves. The pioneer inventor John McTammany comments that inventors have to work within the limits of their age, and that when solving a problem they look for answers among what is at hand. Without pouch leather being available, they couldn’t invent a machine that used it. By the late 1880s the development of suitable pneumatic materials and leathers had advanced sufficiently that effective and reliable player mechanisms were starting to enter the marketplace.

1890 – 1900

In 1896, Theodore P. Brown introduced and marketed the “Aeriol Piano”, which was the first substantially complete player piano. That same year Wilcox and White introduced their “Angelus” cabinet player which was a modification of their earlier grand and upright player pianos. None of the early player pianos was a success though John McTammany (self-proclaimed ‘inventor of the player’) credited Brown as the first to organize in a practical manner the ideas others had developed over the previous 20 years.

Through the middle 1890s, Edwin S. Votey developed his piano playing device, the Pianola. This was offered to the Aeolian Company to sell alongside their range of reed organs. It was launched in 1897, and very aggressively marketed over the following years. It was the advertising organized by Harry Tremaine and the Wilcox and White Company that established the market for piano playing devices. Without Tremaine’s business acumen there probably would never have been a player piano industry.

In these early years the main demand was for cabinet players and it was some years before the public preferred to buy an entirely new self-contained instrument and trade in their old perfectly good regular pianos. As market demand changed the “internal player” came back into view and was developed again, this time in earnest.

1900 – 1910

The Pianola was advertised in one of the most high-profile campaigns ever, making unprecedented use of full-page color adverts. It cost $250 (£65) – a large sum of money at the time. Other, cheaper, makes were launched. A standard 65-note format evolved, with 11¼ inch wide rolls and holes spaced 6 to the inch, although several player manufacturers used their own form of roll incompatible with other makes.

Huge sums were spent – by 1903 the Aeolian Company had more than 9000 roll titles in their catalog, adding 200 titles per month. Many companies’ catalogs ran to thousands of rolls, mainly of light, religious or classical music. Ragtime music did feature, but not commonly: in this period, the player was being sold on its artistic capabilities to rich buyers.

The pioneer of this decade was Melville Clarke, who introduced two key ideas: the full-scale roll which could play every note on the piano keyboard, and the internal player as standard. Both ideas were ridiculed by his competitors as unnecessary or impractical, but Clarke rapidly won both battles.

By the end of the decade the piano player device was obsolete, as was the 65-note format. This was a major catastrophe for many small manufacturers, who had spent all their capital on setting up 65-note player operations, and the result was rapid consolidation in the industry.

A new full-scale roll format, playing all 88 notes, was agreed at an industry conference in Buffalo in 1908. This kept the 11¼ inch roll, but now had smaller holes spaced at 9 to the inch. Any player made anywhere in the world could now play any make of roll. Understanding the need for compatibility was the defining moment of the player industry. The consensus was key to avoiding a costly format war, which plagued almost every other form of entertainment media that followed roll music.

While the player piano matured in America, a young inventor in Germany, Edwin Welte, was working on a player which controlled all the aspects of the performance automatically, so that his machine would play back a recorded performance exactly as if the original pianist was sitting at the piano keyboard. This device, the Welte-Mignon, was launched in 1904.

From the early days, manufacturers sought to create mechanisms which would pick out the melody of a musical composition over the background of the rest of the music in the same manner as a live pianist.

With Aeolian’s introduction of Metrostyle in 1901 and Themodist in 1904 . With sales growing rapidly, and the instruments themselves relatively mature, this decade saw a wider variety of rolls become available. Two major advances were the introduction of the hand-played roll, both classical and popular, and the word roll. The hand-played roll introduced musical phrasing into the roll, so that the player pianist did not have to introduce this by using the tempo controls – something that few owners ever felt much inclination to do. Word rolls made it simple to use the player to accompany singing in the home, a very popular activity in the years before radio and acceptable disc recordings became available.

The other major advance was the arrival of major commercial rivals for the Welte-Mignon: the Ampico and the Duo-Art systems, both launched around 1914. When World War I came in 1914 and German patents were withdrawn, these two companies were left to compete with each other. In England, Aeolian had a huge factory and sales network, so easily outsold the Ampico. It is estimated that perhaps 5% of players sold were reproducing pianos.

In America by the end of the decade, the new ‘jazz age’ and the rise of the fox-trot confirmed the player piano as the instrument of popular music, with classical music increasing relegated to the reproducing piano. Most American roll companies stopped offering large classical catalogs before 1920, and abandoned ‘instrumental’ rolls (those without words) within a few years.

Things were somewhat different in England, where the Aeolian Company continued to promote classical material to a receptive public (this was the era that was to give birth to John Reith’s BBC, after all). Word rolls never became the norm in England, always being charged at a 20% premium over non-word rolls. American and British roll collections post WW1 look very different!

1920 – 1930

This was the decade that saw the player piano reach its peak, and then its rapid decay. The peak sales of instruments and rolls were in the first few years of the decade. At one point, more than half of all pianos being made in America contained a player unit. The player piano was not an obscure by-line – it was the dominant force in the industry.

In the early 1920s, pretty well every pianist of note, both in classical and popular fields, were called on to make rolls.

Little new technically arose through the 1920s. Perhaps the most significant was the launch of a significantly improved form of the Ampico system, the Ampico B, in 1926. This was accompanied by an automatic recording device that could record a pianist’s note timings and dynamics.

The technical advances of the 1920s were instead in radio technology. The key development there was the introduction of amplification, so that it was possible to sit round the radio and listen as a family, unlike the earlier crystal sets which required the use of headphones. Amplification was also applied to the recording of 78 rpm records, the electrical recording systems introduced around 1925 allowing a major rise in sound quality. Radio and these new records rapidly eroded the market for the player piano, and it was decaying from the mid 1920s onwards.

When the Wall Street crash came 1929, the player piano was in a very weak position by this point, and sales effectively ceased. Only a few well-capitalized companies continued in business after this. Many of these companies were the result of consolidation throughout the 1920s, which had already seen the loss of most names, particularly in the roll making field.

1930 – 1950

A few companies struggled on through the 1930s. In 1931 Aeolian purchased the American Piano Company, makers of the Ampico. To bring capital to the business they sold off all their overseas assets, so the large piano factory at Hayes was closed and sold with one month’s notice. The joint Aeolian-American operation stopped making new classical rolls and concentrated on popular material, and the final new rolls were issued in the late 1930s.

A major survivor throughout this was the QRS piano roll company, originally an offshoot of Melville Clarke’s operation. Owned by the mid 1920s by Max Kortlander, and funded by his income as a composer, QRS continued to issue rolls, all of them created by J. Lawrence Cook , chief roll arranger from 1921 to 1961 (he topped up his income as a postal worker). Thanks to QRS, roll repertoire is available from the 1930s and 1940s.

Other than QRS, the end of the 1930s had seen the end of the player piano era. The lingering roll production in England finally ceased in 1941 when paper rationing made it impossible to continue. The Aeolian Duo-Art recording machinery was destroyed by bombing during the World War II, as was the Welte factory.

An interesting sideline of the war was reproducing piano’s pneumatic technology — the aircraft training simulator. This was a device that moved realistically in response to a pilot’s operation of the controls, powered by suction and bellows. These were introduced by the Link company in America, and the British equivalent was the Silloth trainer based on Duo-Art technology. The electronic descendants of these devices are now widespread.

However, the immediate aftermath of the war saw the growth of interest in this lost era. Richard Simonton purchased the surviving Welte-Mignon rolls from Edwin Welte, and disc recordings were made of the performances. The enthusiast era had, tentatively, begun.

1950 – 1999

During the early 1950s a number of collectors began to rescue player pianos and all the other instruments of the 1920s and earlier. Amongst them was Frank Holland, who formed his collection while working in Canada. On returning to England he located a number of like-minded enthusiasts and started to hold meetings at his house in west London. In 1959 this was formalized as ‘The Player Piano Group’. By the early 1960s, Frank Holland had formed the British Piano Museum (now the Musical Museum) in Brentford. His enthusiasm and effort was the focus of the preservation movement in the UK.

In America, another collector was Harvey Roehl, who was so enthused by the players that in 1961 he published a book called Player Piano Treasury. This sold by the tens of thousands, and was followed by books on how to rebuild and restore these instruments. Harvey Roehl’s Vestal Press was a major driving force in raising awareness of the player piano within the general population.

Other societies worldwide were formed to preserve and study all aspects of mechanical music, such as the Musical Box Society International (MBSI) and the Automatic Musical Instrument Collectors’ Association (AMICA) in America.

In the 1960s, Max Kortlander died, and QRS was sold to Ramsi Tick, in whom it found another stalwart champion whose business philosophy was not so much profit as to limit losses. QRS’s presence ensured that owners of newly-awakened players could purchase rolls of the latest titles, so ensuring that the instrument remained current, not just a historical curiosity.

So great was the revival that in the 1960s, production of player pianos started again. Aeolian revived the Pianola, albeit this time in a small spinet piano suited to post-war housing. Other manufacturers followed, and production has continued intermittently ever since. QRS today offer a traditional player piano in their Story and Clark piano.

21st Century

The focus of the preservation societies is gradually changing . Firstly these machines played contemporary music, then they played nostalgic music, now they play ancient music. People are no longer nostalgic particularly. The focus has shifted back to the original joy of owning a player piano – the ability to create interactive music. In the 21st century the player piano thrives as a live fully interactive music making machine in a way that no electronic device can equal. A whole new generation are discovering the pleasures of interactive music making. As a result there has been greater focus on full rebuilding as original instruments finally stop working. Early enthusiasts could often get by with limited patching, but the repair requirements have slowly risen, although even to this day it is possible to find original 1920s instruments that still work after a fashion – a tribute to their quality, and an indication of their continued popularity. New music rolls continue to be produced. There is now a very active project to electronically scan and preserve old original music rolls. These can be replicated using modern perforation machines to produce a perfect copy or alternately an electronic version can be played on a modern keyboard or a modern solenoid-operated acoustic piano. With the easy availability of computer editing software the possibilities the player piano offers musicians and composers are endless.