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.


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.