A Brief Outline
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Player pianos play just a small part in the area of automatic musical instruments and they go back as early as the 1840’s beginning with cylinder music boxes right through to Dance organs, of which are still made today.
Early pneumatic devices were called piano players (see article on pushups) and these were developed in the 1890’s and became very popular. Many different companies marketed their own style of piano player and advertised it accordingly. One company who advertised very heavily around the 20th century was the Farrand Company who manufactured a piano player called the Cecilian. In fact , so good was their advertising that the public adopted the term Cecilian to describe all types of roll-operated piano’s including those by other makers. Later, the Pianola trademark would achieve that same distinction.
These piano players were popular for only a short time when in the early 1900’s they invented the inner player. Incorporating the player mechanism inside the piano case, hence changing the name to the player piano. The introduction of the inner player caused the demise of the piano player, it was this new concept of incorporating the mechanism into the piano and the extensive advertising campagain that made the player piano so popular. Early players played many and varying types of rolls, 65,73,88,etc note rolls. So in 1908 they got together and standerized all players to play 88 note rolls (9 holes per inch). Just like they standerized Midi in 1981.
The Aeolian Company of America deserves the credit for popularising the player piano to it’s fullest. They under took very extensive advertising to it’s limit, using the name Pianola as there catch cry. The price of a Pianola in the early 1900’s was $250.
An approximate estimate of player piano’s built in America from the early 1900’s to 1930 was two million. There were dozens of different companies manufacturing players by 1915 and by 1920 production of player piano’s out stripped that of non-players.
The reduction in Player sales began in 1926-27, many things seem to have caused the demise of the player. A fair bit of credit seems to go to the introduction of the radio. By 1929 there wasn’t much left of the automatic piano industry, and what there was fell victim to the economic depression.
All within a few short years, the many technicians , part supplies and manufactures had turned their interests to other fields , the momentum of the automatic piano industry was lost never to be regained.
The good thing about this today is that it brings to us in the 21st century a good insight into the type of music and lifestyle of those who have been before us. Particularly the compositions on the re-producing piano which gives a exact re-enactment of the artists performance.
Reproducing Pianos use special rolls and contain extra mechanisms which allow them to imitate the playing of human pianists. From the early 1900’s until the late 1930’s most of the worlds finest pianists, classical & popular recorded their performances on specially equipped recording pianos, with a few rolls being issued in the early 1940’s. After a musical selection was recorded, the master was edited,and special expression “coding” was added to the margins of the music roll so it could play the original performance as accurately as possible.
The three systems which survive today in large numbers include the “Welte-Mignon” (introduced in Germany in 1904),the Aeolin “Duo-Art”(introduced in the US in 1913), and the American Piano Co. “Ampico” (introduced in the US in 1914).
While there were other important reproducing systems :- the Hupfeld DEA and Triphonola, Philipps Duca, Angelus Artrio and Apollo Artecho, these exist today in such small numbers that it is a rare occurrence to see one, let alone to own or restore one.