The rise and fall of the piano player

Yikan Ge, Staff Writer

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Every now and then, a piece of technology slips through the cracks of history. Often they are marvelous and ingenious in their own ways, but like old soldiers these devices fade away regardless. Be it the mighty zeppelin, the pedaled sewing machine, the icebox, the arquebus, these fascinating inventions, with innovations far ahead of their time, still become outclassed by other, more convenient creations.

The player piano is a perfect example of this. A complex mechanical device powered by pneumatics and driven by cogs, this modified version of the pianoforte was designed to use a reel system to play notes from perforated paper scrolls without the need for an instrumentalist.

It was a huge novelty when it first appeared on the market in the early 20th century, but as Edison’s phonograph became more popular, people had less need for the poor player piano. It is a real shame, since the player piano can simulate live performance in a manner that phonographs could not, but each one also cost a small fortune and their infeasibility drove the autopianos to extinction.

In 1863, a Frenchman named Fourneaux invented the player piano. He called it “Pianista”, and it was the first pneumatic piano mechanism, which was introduced at the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition in 1876. The first important advance in player piano technology since then came with a man named Edwin Voltey.

Voltey’s gas-powered 1896 Pianola was a chest the size of a piano, which was pushed up to the piano in order to play it. However, external players were clumsy and unwieldy, and with the turn of the century, Melville Clark introduced the Apollo, the first player piano with an internal self-playing mechanism. Though their use of paper rolls survived, external players died out.

Eventually, this self-contained instrument operated by paper rolls and powered by gas developed into an electronic device with the advent of the electronic age in the 1910s. The creation of reproducing paper rolls allowed player pianos to utilize tempo and expression as well, and player piano makers built vacuum pumps to operate the keys more delicately.

The age of the player piano lasted for thirty years between 1900 and 1930, but the phonograph and the radio slowly began to replace it for musical entertainment, and the Great Depression made it so that people could no longer afford such luxuries. Player pianos, now completely out of use, were chopped up for firewood and building material.