"History of the Player Piano"

Many thanks to Robbie Rhodes for this article (Feb '97)


Here is a quote from one of the fine reference books, "Encyclopedia of Automatic Musical Instruments," by Q. David Bowers, Vestal Press, Vestal, NY, 1972, page 255:

"History of the Player Piano"

"Although barrel-operated stringed instruments were known centuries earlier, the first roll-operated piano seems to have been conceived by Claude-Felix Seytre of Lyons, France, who patented in 1842 a piano-playing system which used a music sheet made of stiff cardboard. Alexander Bain's 1848 English patent for a roll-operated piano described a perforated roll of normal thickness paper.

"In 1863 Fourneaux, a Frenchman, patented a pneumatically-operated player piano. Called the Pianista (a term later used generically in France to describe other types of player instruments), unlike its predecessors, was made in commercial quantities and was sold with success. The Pianista was exhibited at the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia in 1876, and it caused much comment at the time."

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Mr. Bowers goes on to note that the early devices were not built into the piano; rather, the mechanism was in a separate cabinet which was offered up to the keyboard, and which pushed the piano keys with small fingers. The generic English term for this machine is "push-up player", and a popular German name is "Vorsetzer", the name of the player cabinet sold by the Welte company of Freiburg, which "sits before" the piano.

But in all cases the push-up player was heavy and bulky, and of course had to be moved aside so that little Susie could practice her piano lessons. And once moved it wasn't often replaced at the piano. So the industry shrunk the player mechanism (and expanded the piano case slightly) to make the "inner-player" or "player piano", which became popular shortly after 1900. By 1910 the old-style push-up piano player was obsolete.

In 1923 it is estimated that 170,500 player pianos were built in America, and someone once noted that this figure is more than the number of babies born that year! In 1937 only 250 players were built.

Just as "Victrola" and "Phonograph" became generic terms, the "Pianola", built by the Aeolian Company, became a generic name for the "player-piano" or "roller piano". ("Roller" refers to the roll of paper with the music, and not to a capstan roller.)

Did you know that the gesture of "winding up" the player piano has it's basis in fact? Actually, in two devices. Long before the pneumatic system, pianos were made with a pinned-cylinder player mechanism, like a music box. The giant cylinder was the length of the keyboard and so gave it the name, "barrel piano", which was powered by a hand-crank.

The other device was the more modern player piano, but which moved the music roll using a large spring-motor. Until the builder figured a way to wind the motor from the foot pedals it was necessary to "wind up" the spring, like a phonograph, before playing the song. The spring-motor stored enough energy that it could completely rewind the roll too!

This Photo shows a spring wound motor and governor built by Melville Clark, The spring is housed in the drum at the top and as you pedaled playing the roll it would wind the spring. Meaning you didn't have to pedal for rewind.

The player piano reigned as the "home entertainment center" of the era until it was displaced by the electric phonograph in the late 1920s; the coin-operated piano (the "Nickelodeon") survived into the 1930s until it, too, was replaced by the electric jukebox.

Robbie Rhodes

e-mail: rrhodes@foxtail.com


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