The Self-Playing Piano: A Brief History 

 Edwin S Votey (US) is generally regarded as the inventor of the player piano.

Regarded as the inventor of the self playing piano.

Developed in the late 1890’s as a cumbersome push-up box with fingers to operate the keyboard of a standard piano, 
these early designs were mostly 65 note players. Some development allowed expression but push-ups as the original ’Pianola’ 
were not as successful as later types. In the early 1900’s the first fully encased player pianos or self playing pianos 
were developed. This represented a huge advance in practicality, style, appearance and performance, to set the stage for universal                                                                                                            acceptance of the player piano as a legitimate medium. 

Continual development occurred from 1900 through 1929, during this period reproducing players were developed, allowing 
the general public to perform works with expressive dynamics in their own living rooms without formal musical training. 
These reproducing pianos, including Hupfeld, Aeolian Duo-art, Ampico, Recordo  and Welte to name the largest sellers, 
were expensive, but works of art, as are most pianos. The quality of reproducing was subject to debate, and is still a hot topic to this day.
Most reproducing pianos were built with electric pumps, but some had both foot treadles and electric options or were pedal only models. Excellent expression 
can be achieved with a pedal only reproducing piano, equal to and sometimes exceeding electric models, in the hands (and feet) of an experienced operator.
Advertising of these systems was intense, with each claiming their reproducing system better than all others. Some artists  such as Paderewski who transcribed their 
interpretations to roll became instant super stars of the era.
Most manufacturers offered 'sweetners' to secure sales, such as; easy finance payments and generous trade-ins for  non self playing or
'silent' pianos. Player sales staff were heavily trained by the manufacturers to secure maximum sales.

Less expensive models continued to be mass produced, also of high quality, but lacking some of the finer mechanisms of expression and reproduction. One of the largest 
and most respected of mass produced players was the Gulbransen Dickinson Company of Chicago, who produced some 2-3 million players . 
Flourishing at the same time were music roll manufacturers, producing standard 88 note rolls (which became the 
international standard) and expression and reproducing rolls designed to match their individual systems. 

Player piano's and Nickelodeon's were placed in amusement parlours/parks, café's, diners, everywhere. Coin operated instruments that housed not only a piano, but drums, cymbals, accordions, xylophones, bells, whistles, banjos and even violins, brought quality music selections and light displays for a mere nickel. This machine in it's many forms, coined the phrase 'with all the bells and whistles'  These instruments are of exceptional quality and have become quite rare and are exceedingly desirable and collectible, fetching very high prices at auction etc. 

But the pneumatic player piano era was rapidly heading to a sudden end...
By the begining of the Great Depression in 1929 the market for player pianos  was already in decline. There are numerous factors that influenced this trend: the Depression itself, shrinking house sizes, the invention of the cheaper and portable Phonograph, and ultimately radio. 
Very few manufacturers survived into the thirties, with many either declaring insolvency, or swallowed by larger companies better positioned to survive the severe financial storm, for example; the massive multi-national Aeolian Corporation.
However, by the start of World War 11, player manufacture had ceased and production facilities in all piano producing countries were utilized by the military. In allied countries, fine German pianos and player pianos were destroyed by their owners in protest. 

The end of an era.... 

In the 1960’s briefly, and in the 70’s through the 80’s a small resurgence in popularity occurred, easily attributed to movies like 
The Sting*  which raised ragtime music (the forte’ genre of the player piano)  back to popular enough levels to start production again. This was short lived and production never came close to the volume manufactured in the '20's alone.  (These players  mostly manufactured with plastic unit valves and electric wind motors,  represent a departure from the manufacturing techniques refined in the 1920's.  Debate over the worth of this stage of player manufacture is strong, with some refusing to restore them, regarding them as an anomaly too distant in quality music reproduction from the original players of the teens and 20's. Regardless of these differences in opinion, I am certain that the owners of these 'modern' players love them every bit as much as the owners of 1920's players).  
From the 1950’s when 20's player actions started to require more extensive overhaul to continue operation, many piano tuners recommended the gutting of the player mechanisms from  thousands of pianos and a loss of unknown magnitude occurred. 

Despite all these setbacks, many thousands of intact player pianos continue to emerge from storage and the homes of the elderly. 
Many if not all can be restored to their former glory, and collectors and restorers have now taken up the mantle to preserve 
and protect these amazing mechanical music making marvels of a bygone and gentler age. 

As player mechanisms were under constant development, it is entirely possible to come across a totally unique example, this is part of the interest and can be a great challenge to restore, forcing you to basically think like the designer and work out exactly what was intended, with little or no instruction. These are lucky finds indeed.

Should you receive a player piano by bequeath,  try to avoid dismissing it as too expensive to restore, or too big and heavy. See it for what it is, an engineering marvel specifically designed and built by fine craftsmen for your personal musical enjoyment in a uniquely beautiful and rare wooden case that will bring grace to any room in your home.

Rolls continue to be offered from sources such as eBay and there are many professional roll perforators to continue production. 
Perhaps the final development in the player piano story is the computer driven midi-file players that will play piano from files 
downloaded from the internet or from CD.(C)

The push-up was probably easier to put away and forget. It did require a little tedious set up. 

Major innovation and the key to massive and unprecedented sales: The internal player action. 

 Player Pianos in the old west

 You may recall an old western here or there that featured a player piano in the saloon. The truth is, they really didn't have internal player pianos around the period that most westerns are set, say...1850 - 1890.  So probably a little Hollywood license in use,  I'm sure the saloon owners would've loved player pianos, they never got drunk.... and were very rarely shot.

Player Piano Ragtime Medley.mp3

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