The piano is one of the most elegant musical instruments and has built essentially every musical style today, from purely classical to modern, synth-driven tunes. However, the real heart of the piano comes from the pianist himself, who hits the keys of his Steinway model M, swells the crescendos, and connects phrases into a masterful piece of art.
But what if you didn’t need the musician to play the music? That question was answered by the player piano. Let’s take a look at the history behind this great invention.
Although automated instruments seem to be something built more for the computer age, they have actually been around for over two millennia. In the second century B.C., the great Alexandrian writer, inventor, and mathematician Ctesibius wrote of a self-playing mechanical organ. From there automation found its way into carillons, simple cylinder music boxes, and disc music boxes, setting the stage for automatic pianos in the 20th century.
In 1800, prior to the invention of the player piano, Joseph Marie Jacquard developed a mechanical loom that could be controlled by a series of punched cards laced together, which would direct the threads and create the elaborate designs and patterns.
Developing the Player Piano
The player piano could be played by a person like any Steinway model L, but the automation allowed for even the most unskilled of pianists to listen to beautiful piano music.
The Fourneaux pianista, invented in 1863, was the first player piano. The pianista read perforated paper rolls, much like Jacquard’s loom, and used a pneumatic mechanism to trip the piano bellows to sound notes. In 1873, the Schmoele brothers considered a double valve system that read the paper roll electrically and activated the pneumatics with an electro magnet. In 1876, John McTammany created a working player piano that read a paper roll using sprung fingers, the slightest movement of which triggered the mechanical player.
These three devices were exhibited in Philadelphia as of 1876, but it was another twenty years before someone combined all the components into a single working device when Theodore P. Brown introduced the Aeriol Piano, the first complete piano player.
The Reproducing Piano
Although the player piano could play music, it lacked the ability to bring out music’s subtleties. The reproducing piano used the same basic paper roll mechanism but added punched holes along roll edges which would control volume, tempo, expression, and tone.
The reproducing piano, created in 1905 by Ludwig Hupfeld, ran off the idea that you could record a pianist’s playing style and reproduce it with the same accenting, shading, and expression.
The rise of jazz and the fox-trot in the 1920s saw the growth of the player piano, while the reproducing piano was quickly relegated to classical music.
However, affordable radios became commonplace in 1927, and by 1932, not a single player piano shipped from the major factories. While Steinway pianos and other normal instruments maintained a strong following, the stock market crash and beginning of the Great Depression eventually ended the production of the original player piano.