The piano was among the last instruments to be automated. For one, the motion of a hammer striking a string is harder to animate than forcing an organ-pipe valve open and sending air through bellows. Secondly, the sound of a piano depends on both how hard you hit a key and how long you hold it.
Strange and elaborate devices to play automated music have been built since ancient times. Cylinders or barrels with protruding pegs or pins were first used to play melodies in 14th-century Europe, where a pegged barrel device was invented to ring carillon bells in cathedral clock towers. Using the same technology, 17th-century Europeans developed barrel organs that used large pinned cylinders to move levers and send air through the pipes. These instruments were powered by water or clockwork.
The small hand-crank street organ appeared in the 18th century. Around the same time, French automaton-maker Jacques de Vaucanson improved upon the barrel concept by replacing the protruding pins or pegs with holes. It is believed he used his unique pierced cylinders in both music-making and weaving machines.
Late in the 18th century, Swiss clockmaker Antoine Favre created a small, tuned steel comb that could be played using a wind-up pinned cylinder, a device that would become the music box. At the time, European tinkerers were building prototypes of large music-playing machines that became known as "orchestrions." These automatic organs played pipes that were tuned to sound like wind-instrument sections and also included levers that struck a variety of percussion instruments like drums, cymbals, triangle, and tambourine.
Similarly, barrel pianos were built in the early 19th century, but they never took off with the general public. The switch motion triggered by the pinned cylinder couldn't create a hard enough strike to play the piano with very much force, but street entertainers and businesses found the sound worthy of background music. In England, the Hicks cabinet-making family produced some of the earliest hand-cranked barrel pianos, while advanced technology like different-size barrels and electric motors were developed in Spain. During the late 19th century, Greek music lovers took to a variation of the hand-cranked barrel piano called the laterna or rhombia, which was operated by barrels outfitted with nails.
Adopting Vaucanson's concept, French weaver Joseph Marie Jacquard developed an automated loom in 1804 that could produce complicated textile patterns using punched cards that were tied or taped together in a sequence. Inspired by Jacquard, in 1842, Frenchman Claude Seytre patented the first automatic piano using a pierced-cardboard cylinder, but his clumsy device did not play very well. Five years later, Scottish inventor Alexander Bain patented a machine that used a perforated paper roll to open the valves of reed and pipe organs, but it could not operate a piano's hammers. Others experimented with using strong springs to play the keys, but these shred the paper rolls as they read them.
In 1849, German clockmaker Michael Welte introduced his orchestrion-type automatic pipe organ, which replicated the sounds of an orchestra using a wooden pinned cylinder read by ...
In 1863, French instrument-maker Napoleon Fourneaux patented an external device that played a piano, which he called the Pianista but was more generally known as a "piano player" (not "player piano"). A row of wooden fingers, designed to line up with piano keys, protruded from the back of the machine. You had to depress a foot pedal to send air through the pneumatic bellows, which operated the fingers, while a hand-cranked pinned barrel determined which key was struck. In 1867, wealthy American magnate George W. Van Dusen obtained a patent for a piano player that used a perforated paper roll to determine which notes were played. Fourneaux adopted his invention to read a cardboard book in 1871, and this machine, along with a similar device developed by American inventor John McTammany to play a reed organ, was introduced to Americans at the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia in 1876. At that same world's fair, the Schmoele brothers of Philadelphia showed an automatic organ, patented in 1873, which read a paper roll using an electromagnetic tracker and amplified the sound through a double-valve pneumatic system.
After the world's fair, interest in mechanical music swelled, as businesses—such as Mechanical Orguinette Company, which later became known as Aeolian Company—formed to produce automatic reed organs in the United States. Other American musical-instrument makers such as E. P. Needham & Son turned their attention to these mechanical devices. Initially, these organs lacked valves, and air flowed through the holes in the paper. When valves were added, the organs read the paper faster, so the holes could be smaller. In 1880, Needham filed a patent for an automatic piano employing a pneumatic device. That same decade, tinkerers came up with a double-valve system for automatic pianos to alter the volume of air flowing through the valves. It wasn't until the late 1880s that leather became airtight enough to create the inflatable pouches needed to operate the valves.
In 1887, M. Welte & Sons adopted the paper-roll technology for their multiple-instrument orchestrions. Paper rolls, which were originally red, had several advantages: They were lightweight, easy to manufacture, and made it simple to change songs. In contrast, the pinned barrels had been heavy, expensive, difficult to change, and easy to break. The adoption of paper rolls expanded the repertoire of music made for these machines. Welte eventually replaced the mechanical tracking system with a much-quicker pneumatic device, and most older orchestrions were updated with this new technology.
It wasn’t until the 1890s that the inventions of Fourneaux, McTammany, and the Schmoeles displayed at the Philadelphia exhibition were brought together to create the first autonomous player piano. American inventor Edwin S. Votey spent the decade tinkering with Fourneaux's and McTammany's fingered “piano player” devices. Votey’s 1895 paper-roll-reading machine was sold by the Aeolian Company as the "Pianola," and he later worked on a separate device marketed as the “Pianola Piano.” Thus, "pianola" became the generic term for player piano, though Votey's first invention—a piano attachment operated by foot pedals—did not include the piano itself.
The widely advertised Pianola established the industry standard for dozens of knockoffs: These devices played 65 notes on a piano keyboard, and used rolls that were 11 ¼ inches wide with holes spaced six per inch. Some of the Pianola competitors, however, had their own rolls that were incompatible with other devices.
Piano-playing devices, including the Angelus made by Wilcox and White Company, were quite popular at the turn of the century as most middle-class families already owned pianos and were reluctant to replace them. Wilcox and White's fingered Angelus Orchestral piano player was also outfitted with self-playing reeds to give the piano music orchestral effects.
By 1903, the Aeolian Company produced more than 9,000 piano-player roll titles and was adding 200 titles to its catalog every month, along with thousands made by other companies. At the time, only wealthy people purchased piano players, so the rolls were mostly high-brow classical or religious music, rather than low-brow ragtime.
It wasn't long before the player piano—a piano with the playing device built in—took over from the external piano player. The machine thought to be the first functional player piano was the Aeriol Piano or Aeriola, invented by Theodore P. Brown of Massachusetts in 1896 and sold by Aeolian the following year. Around the same time, Fred. R. Goolman of Los Angeles developed his automatic pneumatic player piano. By 1898, Roth & Engelhart in New York had acquired Goolman's patent and began manufacturing his device under the Peerless brand. Meanwhile, at Wilcox and White in Connecticut, inventors Edward White and William D. Parker experimented with upright and grand pianos with the roll hidden beneath the keys, a concept that made it hard to control the music's dynamics and therefore, never took off.
In 1901, Melville Clark introduced a player piano that played all 88 notes of a standard piano under his Apollo brand. The 15 1/4-inch rolls had holes spaced six to an inch. Edward Votey had joined Aeolian company, which had acquired Weber, and by 1903, Aeolian was producing a player piano, known as the Weber Pianola Piano. Then Aeolian began offering other player pianos under the Aeolian, Weber, and Pianola brands.
At a 1908 player-piano industry conference in Buffalo, New York—an event that became known as the Buffalo Convention—several prominent manufacturers agreed to follow a standard format for 88-note player pianos. The standard roll would be 11 1/4 inches wide with the holes spaced nine per inch. Thus, the player-piano industry dodged a pricey format war, and song rolls produced by one manufacturer could work on competing player pianos. At that point, external piano player devices were going out of fashion. Music rolls were made by musical editors who marked master rolls, called "stencils," by hand according to the sheet music, and then punched the holes.
In the world of orchestrions, the top manufacturers, which included Welte in Germany and Wurlitzer and Seeburg in America, each used unique roll sizes for their machines. Then Seeburg opted to create a standardized system that could be used on their machines and machines of their competitors, which allowed Seeburg to produce many more rolls than Welte or Wurlitzer. Seeburg "A" rolls—once known as "S" rolls—played on pianos and also devices with mandolin effects. "G" and "H" rolls played on orchestrions, depending on which instruments the orchestrion contained.
Aside from standardized rolls, another concern about player pianos was expression, dynamics, and phrasing. Most player pianos were designed to be interactive and had pedals and levers that allowed people to control the dynamics and phrasing while the roll played the notes. That way, one could make the song's melody stand out over the accompanying notes. An inventor named Francis Young came up with the idea of printing a sinuous red line on the roll, which was read by a pointer attached to the tempo lever. Aeolian produced player pianos with this device built in, marketed as Metrostyle Pianolas. Aeolian's Themodist, introduced in 1906, automated the control of dynamics, thanks to a series of perforated dots added to each side of the roll, one for bass and one for treble.
The loud, plinky sounds of player pianos worked for noisy American saloons, but not so much elegant European salons. In Germany, inventor Edwin Welte developed a player piano that could re-create all the aspects of a piano performance to sound as if the original pianist were sitting at the keys. His invention, the Welte-Mignon, debuted as the first "reproducing piano" in 1904. “Reproducing pianos” sought to capitalize on the popularity of celebrity pianists, whose names could be used to sell more piano rolls. Rolls created by famous musicians were known as "hand-played rolls."
American rivals for the Welte-Mignon hit the market 10 years later. These included the American Piano Company (Ampico) reproducing piano and the Votey-invented Duo-Art mechanism sold by Aeolian, which could be installed in any Aeolian brand piano player, including Weber, Steck, Wheelock, and Stroud, as well as Steinway player pianos. Well-loved classical and pop-music pianists Ignace Paderewski, Josef Hofmann, Percy Grainger, Teresa Carreño, Aurelio Giorni, Robert Armbruster, and Vladimir Horowitz all made Duo-Art rolls. In 1926, Ampico introduced the Ampico B, a device to record a pianist's dynamics and phrasing.
Piano rolls with the lyrics printed directly on them were first offered in 1916. Before radios or phonographs became widespread, standing around a piano and singing was a common form of amusement. These standard rolls also suited the new "jazz age" sound, while lovers of classical music were among the 5 percent of Americans who purchased more accurate reproducing pianos.
Prohibition in 1920 put a damper on orchestrions, which had been largely featured in saloons and were too big for secret speakeasies. Most of these giant machines were chopped up for their wood and metal. Player pianos read their peak of popularity in 1924, and then sales quickly plummeted thanks to electronic inventions, which improved amplified radio music and allowed for more accurate recordings on shellac 78 records. Additionally, the Great Wall Street Crash of 1929 made player pianos seem like an extravagance.
Aeolian absorbed the American Piano Company and limped along as the Aeolain-American company, making music rolls until the late 1930s. QRS, a branch of Melville Clark's company and funded by Max Kortlander's lucrative composition career, stayed in business, producing music rolls featuring popular music of the 1930s and '40s. J. Lawrence Cook served as the company's chief roll arranger between 1921 and 1961. After Kortlander passed away in 1961, QRS continued to publish music rolls with current music on them.
Welte's German factory was destroyed during World War II, but American mechanical music fanatic Richard Simonton quickly purchased the rolls that survived the bombing from Edwin Welte and made recordings of the orchestrion and reproducing-piano music. By the 1950s, nostalgia inspired a movement led by British collector Frank Holland to restore and preserve player pianos and orchestrions. In 1959, Holland and other enthusiasts established The Player Piano Group, and in the early 1960s, Holland and cohorts opened the British Piano Museum.
In the United States, collector Harvey Roehl published a 1961 book called "Player Piano Treasury," which sold well. Through his Vestal Press, Roehl published more books on rebuilding and restoring player pianos. American enthusiasts formed groups like Automatic Musical Instruments Collector's Association (AMICA). In the late 1960s, Aeolian revived the Pianola, albeit a smaller version, and various new player pianos have been available ever since.