later marketed by Aeolian as the Pianola. This surviving early
example resides in the Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC.
Votey constructed his prototype piano-player system during the spring
and summer of 1895, in a workshop at his home in Detroit, USA. It
took the form of a large wooden cabinet that stood in front of any
ordinary piano, and from the rear protruded a row of felt-covered
wooden fingers that were aligned with the keyboard. These fingers
activated the piano's keys in the same manner as a human pianist.
S. Votey is
credited as inventor of the pneumatic systems found in most
types of player piano.
player mechanism was powered entirely by suction, generated by the
operation of two foot treadles, while tiny perforations on small paper
rolls represented the notes to be played. The tracker bar, a pneumatic
reading device over which the roll was transported, had a row of equally
spaced holes; one for each note. A music roll perforation passing
over the tracker bar caused a valve to open, which in turn triggered
a pneumatic motor. The latter operated a felt covered wooden finger,
pressing the corresponding note on the piano keyboard.
principal upon which Votey's system operated subsequently became the standard
for virtually all roll operated piano playing systems. The Aeolian Corporation
in the USA acquired the rights from Votey and marketed his piano-player
system from 1897 as the Pianola. Aeolian later became the world's leading
manufacturer of roll operated instruments. Votey's main achievement was
that he brought together the best of pre-existing designs, to create an
instrument that would enjoy mass market appeal for three decades. He therefore
did not design the player piano from scratch.
Aeolian Pianola external player, noticeably more compact than
the prototype model above, seen here with a grand piano.
external players are often referred to as push-up players, simply
because they were pushed up to the piano when required for use. However,
they were heavy, cumbersome and difficult to move whenever the owner
wished to play the piano by hand. Shortly after the turn of the century,
Melville Clark introduced a piano called the Apollo,
with a built-in player mechanism and thus was born the player piano.
This concept, quickly adopted by other manufacturers, ultimately led
to the demise of the external player.
of the pneumatic player piano; a mechanical barrel piano. These
were popular with street musicians, whereas the player piano
found its place in the home.
to the advent of the Pianola, various attempts had been made to devise
a practical method for playing a piano automatically, although none
of these achieved a notable degree of success in the home. Many of
these early systems relied upon the use of a rotating wooden barrel
with strategically placed pins to control the music, rather like a
street piano. The musical repertoire was greatly limited, not least
by the cost and dimensions of the wooden barrels, each of which would
contain a small number of short tunes. In contrast, the paper music
rolls used by the Pianola were cheap, compact and easy to mass-produce.
short-lived competitor of the pneumatic player piano. This Steinway
upright piano is equipped with a purely mechanical system called
the "Pianotist", sold between 1900 and 1905 by Pianotist
Co, New York.
instruments could only play a range of 58 or 65 notes from the music
roll, whereas the piano typically had 85 or 88 keys. This prevented
the accurate rendition of many classical pieces, some of which were
specially adapted to accommodate the reduced musical scale. In addition,
a number of manufacturers developed their own design of music roll,
usually incompatible with other makes of instrument, an example being
Hupfeld who introduced a 73 note system. A
convention held in 1908 brought about a new industry standard, namely
the 88-note roll, subsequently adopted by all manufacturers.
upright piano equipped with Welte player system, one of a generation
of instruments known as reproducing pianos.
1904, the firm of Edwin Welte in Germany had developed a new kind
of player piano, known at first as the Welte-Mignon. This instrument
and its rivals have over the years come to be known as reproducing
pianos, the other main systems being the Ampico and the Duo-Art.
Reproducing pianos are so called because they are equipped to reproduce
the rubato, dynamics and pedalling of the pianists who recorded for
them. Nearly all the major pianists of the early twentieth century
made rolls for the reproducing piano.
Wall Street crash of 1929 brought about the sudden demise of
the player piano market.
Following the well-known Wall Street crash of 1929,
player piano sales quickly declined dramatically, leaving just a tiny
number of manufacturers in business during the 1930s.
1960s saw the arrival of modern compact spinet type players,
such as this Pianola by Aeolian.
A 1960s revival of interest resulted in the resumption of player piano
production by a handful of manufacturers. Aeolian even produced a
modern version of their famous Pianola, and the demand for music rolls
increased accordingly. However, production of roll-operated instruments
has ceased in recent years, with modern systems such as the Yamaha
Disklavier providing an electronically controlled player system inside
an acoustical piano.
Disklavier - a popular modern type of player piano.