The documented idea of the player piano goes back several hundred years before there was a piano, to the time of Dom. Bedos de Celles (1709-1779), who wrote the definitive treatise on pipe organ building. His books had a chapter on automatic playing of pipe organs. At the same time, there were virginals, clavichords, and harpsichords being played by the same idea of a planchette, (a flat board) or a barrel similar to that in a music box. Each of these systems had metal pins driven into the wooden barrel or planchette, which mechanically moved past a device which activated the notes as the pins went by.
In the late 1800's these barrel pianos became quite large, some reaching over 8 feet tall and wider and deeper than a modern upright piano. These later ones all played from a barrel which often reached 4-6 feet in length and 10-20" in diameter. One company (Welte) built barrel organs called Orchestrions that had barrels so large it took 2-3 men to change barrels. It was very expensive to purchase additional barrels/tunes for such instruments. The barrel-played instruments had 5-12 tunes on one barrel.
From barrels to paper roll
Different tunes were played by shifting over about 1/8" to engage another row of pins. Welte is reputed to have designed a pneumatic system similar to the earlier Spinning Jenny loom system. This new system allowed Welte to replace the barrel and barrel readers with a pneumatic system that read the holes in paper rolls. This allowed Welte to sell thousands of rolls where they may have only sold hundreds of barrels. Welte offered to update the barrel readers to roll operation for free in order to encourage roll purchases. The barrel operated Orchestrions are very rare now because of this free offer.
About the same time several companies began selling their own versions of music machines that played from rolls. These usually came in the form of a cabinet with a spool box and pedals on one side and felt covered fingers on the other side. These "piano players" pushed up to any keyboard and played it as long as you pedaled the unit. The first commercially successful device was the Pianola. The next most successful was the Melville Clark Apolloette which had a spring-wound roll motor and the Wilcox and White--some of theirs played reed organ along with the piano. In 1906-7 Melville Clark/Apollo began to put the pneumatic mechanism into the piano case and called it the "Inner player". This began the race to make a player system available in every brand of piano built.
The player piano reached its top year of production and sales in 1925 when more players sold than regular (silent) pianos. Production tapered off from there and after the 1929 stock market crash, sales hit all time lows. In the depression era followed by World War II, player piano manufacturers closed, sold out, or merged. While there were hundreds of piano and player piano companies prior to 1929, by the time the second world war began, there were only a few surviving piano companies. It is believed that all player piano production ceased in 1941. In the late 40's Hardman Duo became the first player piano to go back into production. By that time, all the patents owned by many player builders before the shakeout were now owned by one or two. There were several other brands that went back into player piano production throughout the 50's, 60's, 70's, and 80's. These included Hardman, AEolian, Kimball, Baldwin, Universal, and Classic. At this time the only pneumatic player piano being built is built by Story & Clark owned by QRS Music Rolls.
What evolved from the Pneumatic Player piano?
Several player piano builders had other sidelines that ended up saving the company during the times when piano sales were nearly nonexistent.
Regina, who first made music boxes and later player pianos, redesigned the bellows to the player pianos they made and from it produced the first in-home vacuum cleaner, which was hand pumped. This began the whole vacuum cleaner industry. Today you might find a Regina electric broom in your own closet.
The Simplex company made one of the best built player piano systems, but later put that pneumatic equipment to work to synchronize clocks throughout large factories and schools as well as to punch workers' time cards. Today they build computerized time clocks and fire alarm systems for school, factory, and business use.
The Link piano factory built many fine pianos, pipe organs, and nickelodeons. Mr. Link's son was interested in airplanes, so he took some parts found in the piano factory and built himself an airplane cockpit with a seat and made the whole thing move from the control of a piano roll. This gave him the simulated feeling of really being in an airplane. This also gave birth to the Link Airplane Simulator which is credited with allowing the US to train enough Air Force pilots to win two World Wars. Modern computerized Link Simulators can still be found at any Airline training facility.
So, you can truthfully say the player piano won two world wars, makes our housework easier, and gets us into and out of work and school on time. Odd how a little known, often forgotten entertainment device changed our world as we know it.
Doug L. Bullock, June 18, 2009