by Thaddeus Kochanny of the Chicago AMICA Chapter

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Part 1. Origins of the player piano

Automatic musical instruments have been around for over two millennia. Ctesibius, of Alexandria, Egypt, an inventor and writer, refers to a self-playing mechanical organ in the second century, B.C. Since then, as music making became more sophisticated, automatic instruments evolved into the Tower carillons (13th century), self-playing mechanisms (17th century), cylinder music boxes (18th century) and disc music boxes (19th century). By the early 20th century, automatic pianos, organs and orchestrions reach high sophistication level.

It all really started in 1800, France, when Jacquard Mills develops a loom controlled by punched cards. The cards programmed looms that created elaborately designed fabrics. They "instructed" the pathway for threads to follow to create the designs and patterns in the cloth.

A player piano can be played by hand in the usual way. The pedals and keyboard are identical to an ordinary piano. It just has the additional capacity to play by itself. Player pianos originated with a progression of vacuum operated systems. In the last twenty years or so, several digital electric versions have evolved to greatly expand the piano's abilities to include other instruments, accompaniment and visual effects.

In 1863, the Frenchman Fourneaux invented the player piano. He called it, "Pianista", the first pneumatic piano mechanism, which was introduced at the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition in 1876. In 1887, a year after Votey invented the Pianola; Edwin Welte introduced the perforated paper roll in Germany. The perforated roll mechanism to make music was based on the Jacquard punch cards used to weave designs into cloth.

The piano became 300 years old in 2000 A.D. Its evolution began in the 13th Century, when someone put a harp inside a box and added keys that struck rather than plucked the strings. The first automatic piano was unveiled in New York City by Needham and Sons in 1880. It was built by R. W. Paine and was an adaptation of the orguinette mechanism that was set up by William Tremaine at what later became the Aeolian Company.

Part 2. Heyday of the player piano

Since then, it's been a long series of incremental additions. As mentioned above, in the spring and summer of 1896, Detroit's Edwin Scott Votey invented the PIANOLA in his home workshop at 312 Forest Avenue, Detroit. Votey's first 1896 machine was in a piano sized cabinet that was pushed up to the piano keyboard so that a row of wood "fingers" aligned with the keys.

It used perforated paper rolls and foot-powered pedals. His was the first self-playing piano attachment. He made his patent application based on a smaller version in 1897. On May 22, 1900 he was awarded patent number 650,285 for the first practical pneumatic piano attachment. The Aeolian Company of New York produced it as their "Weber" and "Pianola" player pianos.

The Chicago Columbian Exposition of 1898 saw the first large-scale use of Nikola Tesla's alternating current generators. His invention lit the thousands of lights made by the Thomas Edison Company and opened the door to practical electric transmission nationwide. Earlier, in 1891, Eugene Singer's Sostenente Piano (Paris) demonstrates an alternating current activating string to achieve a more controlled play.

Punched paper rolls for the first Pianola were made by a technician perforating the paper after it was marked up in pencil using the original music score. The music sounded flat, like organ grinder playing, due to the lack of expression. Later, roll recording pianists used a special recording piano that marked the paper as the music was played. This allowed some expression such as tempo and phrasing to be built-in.

Punched paper rolls also drove the first 88-note player pianos. Their music is created when the operator or "pianoist" pumps foot pedals that operate a vacuum motor. An 88-note piano roll tracking mechanism, powered by an air motor, transports the punched roll across the tracker bar. Each piano key is connected to the tracker bar, one hole per key. On 88-note player pianos, by varying the pressure applied to the foot pedals and manipulating levers mounted below the keyboard, the operator manually adds color and expression to the music.

The player piano's heyday lasted from 1900 to the Depression in the1930's. Affordable radios started becoming commonplace in 1927. In 1932, not a single player piano was shipped from the factories. Player pianos sounded much better than radio or the Edison mechanical phonographs of that era. Player pianos were expensive but families who had them enjoyed the musical talents of the best pianists of the day. The poverty of the Great Depression effectively ended player piano production. Uncounted thousands of these instruments were chopped up and used for fuel.

Part 3. The reproducing piano

Reproducing piano rolls had additional punched holes along both roll edges that activate mechanisms controlling tempo, volume, expression and subtle tone, just as the recording artist played the original music. Holes in the paper matching holes in the bar activate the keys creating the music.

In 1905, Ludwig Hupfeld in Leipzig built the Dea reproducing piano. It "reproduces" the original artist's musical interpretation. "Reproducing" here means that the shading, expression, tempo changes used by the recording pianist were captured and played through rows of punch holes located in the margins of the piano roll. Three companies made reproducing mechanisms and licensed these to various piano manufacturers. The Aeolian Company, which started the technology, introduced the DUO-ART reproducing piano. The long list of world-renown pianists who recorded for DUO-ART included the best of the classical composers and artists then living.

The American Piano Company (AMPICO) used a different design to achieve the same result. It functions by regulating the suction level used to operate the keys, thus varying the force, tempo and intensity of the notes they play.

The Welte Company of Germany's "keyless Red Welte" introduced the first such instrument in 1904. In 1904, Freiberg, Germany's Welte developed its own reproducing player piano action using an electric suction pump and sophisticated expression control mechanism. The Pianola "roll-up" mechanism is now inside the piano! They called it the Welte-Mignon licensee reproducing action. Red Welte dispensed with key board, foot pedals and hand controls in favor of electric operation. Welte also introduced a cabinet-style external player similar to the original roll-up Pianola for use on any ordinary piano. Welte-Mignon Licensee reproducing action was the third version of reproducing mechanism. The big Three: DUO-ART, AMPICO AND WELTE-MIGNON dominated reproducing piano mechanisms in America.

The evolution of the reproducing, vacuum operated player piano continued through the 1930's but the high cost in a "down" economy killed the market for these instruments. After the Second World War, prosperity returned, interest in player pianos revived on a much-diminished scale. Many of the instruments that survived were restored. Many more unfortunately, were scrapped. Yet, technology continues to develop.

Vacuum type player piano actions were installed in instruments covering a broad price range. High-grade pianos spared no expense in their manufacture. Popular pianos represented the golden mean, the piano to buy. These pianos are well made by a responsible concern. Commercial pianos emphasize musical quality at a popular price. It is sold for what it is at a price consistent with its qualities. Trade -Mark pianos often have the dealer's rather than maker's names on them. Special name pianos bear any names other than their maker or dealer. This doesn't apply to new, modern instruments, but to those sold prior the World War II.

Part 4. Electronic player pianos

In 1886, the Berlin, Germany firm, Electorphonisches Klavier under Richard Eisenmann used and electric current to activate piano strings. Their system positioned electromagnets close to the string to produce an infinite "sustain" when a note is played. The system was perfected 27 years later in 1913.

Eugene Singer of Paris, France in 1891 introduced an alternating current (A/C) system that was pitched to the frequency of the string it was intended to activate. Control was said to have "improved".

Dr. Lee DeForest of New York, who later went on to invent the audion tube used in television, invented an amplifier patented in 1915. It was the first electronic instrument, but it was never produced.

In 1926, Hugo Gernsback at Pianorad in New York developed an early electronic instrument that used audio frequency oscillators on a two-octave keyboard. Its own oscillator controlled each note.

Since then, the floppy disc and later, the compact disc replaced the perforated paper roll. Holes read by a tracker bar that activated piano keys through bellows and valves morphed into zeros and one's read by a computer that activates solenoids actuating the piano keys. Expression, color, shading and tempo changes are retained by the new technology.

Today, QRS Music makes Story and Clark electronic player pianos. Their electronic system is called "Pianomation". This system may be retrofitted to ordinary pianos and has the unique capability of adding accompaniment by other instruments/orchestra to the playing piano. Yamaha Company also sells player pianos with its factory installed "Disklavier" system. This player system cannot be retrofitted to regular pianos.

Should you be in the market for a piano, in selecting one, the buyer should consider the room size. If selecting an upright rather than grand piano design, the instrument should not be placed against a wall because doing so muffles the sound. Tone, touch and durability are important. Case design, finish and wood type influence the cost.

If you would like to learn more about player pianos, reproducing pianos or electronic pianos, please contact one of our AMICA chapters and join us for a meeting, where you can meet others who share your interests. 

 

 

2014 AMICA International
Automatic Musical Instrument Collectors' Association,
a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organization.


Page last Updated: Sunday, October 05, 2014 05:59 PM
 



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