"Music Roll History"

I wish to thank Rob Deland for this article on the history and evolution of the piano roll.


This article was prompted by a question in a recent posting of the Mechanical Music Digest concerning early types of music rolls, and by private correspondence with a friend who recently located a very early Clark Apollo player roll catalog from 1907. The former questioned why various formats less than 88n were used, and the latter asked about the wide format 88n Apollo rolls (6/inch, 15-1/4" wide).

I checked the basic books such as Roehl's Player Piano Treasury and Bowers & Reblitz' Treasures of Mechanical Music for the following summary. I must give Harvey Roehl particular credit, as the write-up in Player Piano Treasury is excellent and has a thorough account of the early days of the industry, tracing inventions throughout the 19th century. Same goes for Bowers' Encyclopedia, of course; see page 255 for instance, and pages 757-758.

Another highly recommended book is Craig Roell's The Piano in America, 1890-1940. And of course Art Reblitz' Treasures book has plenty of great information as well. I apologize for making this so long, but after I started digging into the subject I couldn't stop! - - - Paper player rolls evolved from the very earliest paper roll types which evidently were organette rolls with wide holes to allow air into the reed channels; these date back to the 1870's. Some of these rolls play only a dozen or so notes, so the rolls are relatively narrow and manufacturable (some less than 4" wide).

The transition from organettes to the 65-note paper player roll included heavier paper piano players, which often had a drawer beneath the keyboard. I found little information on these instruments while preparing this, but examples of these early players are in Bowers' Encyclopedia on pages 360-362, 433 (Hupfeld), and 582.

One unusually early and interesting example is a June 1879 Scientific American article reprinted on pages 757-758 of Bowers' Encyclopedia. There you will find described the "autophone" which is "operated by a thin sheet of paper only 3-7/8" wide, punctured with small holes ... the invention is applicable to instruments of any quality, from the cheapest piano or cabinet organ to a grand church organ. The music sheet is prepared to represent not only the notes, but also the entire expression required to render the music in the most perfect and artistic manner." I would love to hear from anyone who may have or know more about any of these early machines.

As the desire grew to play more notes and to operate a piano from paper roll, a 6-to-the-inch format was standardized around the turn of the century. The 6-to-the-inch format was used on most early home player scales (58n, 65n) and on the early coin-operated rolls (Seeburg A, G & H rolls; Berry-Wood and a few others which were sometimes endless loops rather than rewind-type rolls). This format used holes which were large enough to track even if the paper expanded or contracted due to humidity, and appears to have been deemed quite adequate.

A 73 note roll with 6 holes per inch

The leader of the same roll showing the picture of the artist.

The A roll format and its variants (such as the Berry-Wood endless roll), were introduced shortly after the turn of the century, according to Reblitz' Treasures. Thus the A roll format predates the Marquette Piano Co. (which was founded in 1905, and used A rolls on their Cremona pianos) and J. P. Seeburg Piano Co. (Seeburg quit the Marquette co. in 1907 to start on his own).

It is interesting to note that Welte orchestrion rolls (12-57/64" wide) also used the 6-to-the-inch format. A friend told me he read somewhere that Welte made the transition from barrel-operated machines to rolls sometime during the 1880's. If anyone can tell us more about that, I would be most grateful. I was surprised to find a German company opting for an English measurement, and doing so at such an early date. Can any of our German MMD members explain this? Wasn't the metric system more prevalent than that, or am I just an ignorant American?! ;-)

As an aside, there may be a few roll formats besides 6-to-the-inch which were used prior to this, but the only examples I found were the Encore Banjo which used 5-to-the-inch / 9-5/8" wide rolls; and the Regina Sublima piano roll which used a 79-note / 19-5/8" wide roll. Yes, I realize a banjo is not the same thing as a piano, but you get the idea - there aren't very many variants to 6-to-the-inch!

Paper quality and distortion were evidently serious problems in the early days, based on the amount of information found on the rolls and literature of the time. Many early rolls contain elaborate details on how to store the roll, how to tamp it down and adjust the flanges, etc. to assure the roll tracked properly.

I have an early 65-note Kimball roll on which the label reads "NOTICE: Keep in Dry Place. If paper swells do not use it until it is dried out; it will spoil it." Later the same roll has a rubber stamped notice on the left side reading "MUSIC TO TRACK CORRECTLY should be wound against this end of spool." Boy, they didn't mess around!

A typical Connorized 65-note roll in my collection is on a heavier tan paper that feels like grocery sack paper. Evidently Connorized had figured out how to manage the paper problem, as this roll is rubber stamped "Connorized Paper. This Roll will Play and Rewind irrespective of atmospheric conditions."

An early Connorized 88-note roll I have bears a legend many have probably seen: "Connorized Guaranteed Music Rolls / solid spool. No adjustment of flange required. Warranted to track and rewind correctly."

Finally, many early Red Welte rolls included a paper label which reads:

"Music-rolls must always be kept in boxes and placed in Cabinet containing basin of water during the winter, to prevent contraction and expansion. Not responsible for correct playing unless conditions above stated adhered to."

Can you imagine?!! I can just see someone bringing a red Welte roll back to the dealer because it won't track properly, and the dealer saying "Sorry, sir, but you evidently forgot to refill the basin of water in your roll cabinet. Your warranty is voided."

The evolution through increased roll scales is only natural. 65-note was obviously a good compromise and had the longest market life during the 6-to-the-inch era. However, the Melville Clark Piano Company proudly offered a full 88-note player roll in 1902 by taking the 6-to-the-inch format to a full 15-1/4 inches wide! They marketed this roll under their Apollo label -- I believe this is specifically the Apollo Concert Grand roll -- but it had limited life on the market and nobody else followed suit.

Melville Clark was obviously proud of his invention - a 1907 roll catalog has a banner reading "The Apollo, King of Piano Players" and many of their ads brag about their accomplishments. There are many various and interesting Melville Clark advertisements reprinted in the Player Piano Treasury. Note that this predates the Seeburg H roll format, which is also 6-to-the-inch / 15-1/4 inches wide. The H roll was evidently introduced around 1911, judging from a mention in the Encyclopedia.

I should also mention that Craig Roell's book includes an outstanding chapter on this very busy period in the development of the player piano (and musical copyright law) in the US. Craig states (pg. 42):

"In 1902 Melville Clark introduced the first 88-note player piano, and by 1904 offered a self-contained pneumatic player action for grand pianos. In time, almost every maker made players or fitted pianos with player actions acquired from action factories. Since manufacture of actions and piano rolls was not standardized, however, chaotic conditions greatly hindered the industry. This situation was alleviated at a 1908 convention in Buffalo, New York, when player and music roll manufacturers agreed to abandon 58-, 70-, and 82-note players and produce only 65- or 88-note machines."

(Craig erroneously places the convention at 1910, but Roehl and Bowers both show it as 1908 so I presume that 1908 is correct). I trust that both the 65-note and 88-note formats agreed on in 1908 are the 11-1/4" roll widths we are most familiar with today.

65-note rolls remained the most popular player roll format until the 9-to-the-inch format displaced it in the US; it continued to sell in the UK well into the 1920's. (Didn't someone mention here that they sold in the UK up to the end of the player era in the 1930's?). By this time roll manufacturers had enough experience with paper types that they were comfortable selling the finer-pitch roll without worrying about paper quality and tracking problems.

Melville Clark actually found an excuse to continue manufacturing a 15-1/4" wide home player roll. They introduced a 9-to-the-inch / 15-1/4" wide Solo Art Apollo roll which is essentially a regular 9-to-the-inch 88-note roll with an added 52-note solo section. The Solo Art Apollo has 2 pneumatic stacks, and I presume the 88-note portion plays at one intensity while the solo stack can be made to play at a greater intensity. I understand there are a couple of these being rebuilt today; I look forward to seeing and hearing one!

The 9-to-the-inch format remained the most common through the end of the player piano era and is certainly the most common type found today, but several finer pitches were established subsequently, most often for player organ rolls. The most complex rolls from a manufacturing standpoint have to be Aeolian Duo-Art organ rolls (12-to-the-inch / 15-1/4" wide) and Austin Quadraplex rolls (12-to-the-inch / 21 inches wide).

Rob Deland


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