Player Piano History - the Idea

The idea of automatic musical devices can be traced back many centuries. The idea of using pinned barrels to operate percussion mechanisms (such as striking bells in a clock) was perfected long before the invention of the piano. These devices were later extended to operate musical boxes, which contain a set of tuned metal teeth plucked by the player mechanism.

An early musical instrument to be automated was the organ, which is comparatively easy to operate automatically. The power for the notes is provided by air from a bellows system, and the organist or player device only has to operate a valve to control the available air. The playing task is ideally performed by a pinned barrel, and the art of barrel organs was well advanced by the mid eighteenth century.

The pianoforte is a complex instrument, requiring each note to be struck with a different force to control the dynamics of the performance. The entire force required to sound the note must be given by the performer hitting the keys. It proved to be difficult for a player device to combine a variable percussive force and a controlled note duration. Barrels do not provide a percussive force, but a relatively gentle switching motion.

Early barrel pianos move the hammer back and forwards continuously as the operator turns the handle, but the hammers do not strike the strings until moved slightly forwards by a pin in the barrel. The hammers hit repeatedly until the pin is removed. This plays the note, but at a fixed dynamic and with a tremolo action quite unlike a pianist.

The development of the player piano was the gradual overcoming of the various difficulties of controlled percussive striking and note duration. The earliest practical piano playing device was probably the Forneaux Pianista, which used compressed air to inflate a bellows when the barrel pin opened a valve. This bellows struck the piano key and so played the note.

The acceleration of developments leading to the pneumatic 'player' device started in the 1840s and began to reach some recognizable device in the 1870s. The start of the player period can probably be seen as the Centennial Exposition of 1876 in Philadelphia, USA. At this exhibition were a number of automatic player devices, including the Pianista, that contained the elements which would lead to the player.

The earliest description of a piano playing device using perforated paper rolls was Claude Seytre's French patent of 1842. The concept was sound, but the device described was impractical in the way it read the roll and operated the piano.

In 1847 Alexander Bain described a device that used a paper roll as a 'travelling valve' that allowed air to flow through the reeds of a reed organ. Simple reed and pipe organs using this sort of system are still being produced. However, the air flow is not sufficient to drive a piano mechanism. In 1848 Charles Dawson of England described a more complex travelling valve device which added little to Bain.

Hunt & Bradish of the USA, 1849, used a roll read by sprung fingers, the springs being strong enough to operate the piano mechanism directly. This device applied the entire playing strength to the paper, so would have shredded it rapidly, and the device would have had to be as wide as the piano keyboard!

In 1851 Pape, England, submitted a patent that recognized the need to remove the playing force from the paper, using light springs to read the roll and activate a more robust device which plays the note - a mechanical amplifier.

The first device to address the practical requirement of operating a piano mechanism was Forneaux's, of 1863. This recognized that a hard strike was needed to throw the hammer towards the keys. It used a traditional barrel, but tripped a pneumatic device that inflated bellows rapidly to operate the note. In 1871 a perforated cardboard book was substituted for the barrel, but it was still read using sprung fingers. This device entered manufacture, and is generally regarded as the first practical player device. It was exhibited in Philadelphia in 1876.

Van Dusen's American patent of 1867 was the first to describe a pneumatic striker operated by a roll. It was probably based on the work of John McTammany.

A leap in thought occurred in the 1873 patent of the Schmoele brothers. They described a 'double valve' system which acted as a pneumatic amplifier, reading the roll electrically and operating the pneumatic with an electromagnet. They also exhibited at Philadelphia. With some modification, and pneumatic reading of the roll, this would become the final player piano some 20 years later, although the Schmoele brothers never benefitted from it.

In 1876, John McTammany exhibited a working player in Philadelphia that used a paper roll read using sprung fingers whose slight movement triggered a mechanical player device. This operated a reed organ. McTammany had been experimenting since the mid 1860s, and went on to be one of the key names in the early player industry. He claimed to be the inventor of the 'player', but not the 'player piano' - an important distinction.

Summary: in 1876, in Philadelphia, three working devices were exhibited that between them contained almost all the components that the final player piano would require. However, it was to be 20 years before all these aspects were combined. Surprisingly, the missing component was the pneumatic reading of the roll. This was in all probability due to the lack of suitably flexible airtight material to translate the air flow into the mechanical movement needed to trigger the player device.

from wikipedia


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