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Player Pianos & Self-acting Pianos

by Bill Kibby

There are many museums and collectors who know far more than I do about Player Pianos, but obviously, in the course of collecting information on ordinary pianos, I come across many items on players.

Self-acting pianos are those which can play themselves in some mechanical way, such as clockwork barrel pianos. Bates, Henderson, Rolfe & Clementi were all early makers of self-acting pianos. The late Frank Holland coined the term non-self-acting for instruments which didn't play themselves, but I call them.... PIANOS!

The following pages of player and self-acting items are often updated, so enthusiasts are advised to ask for a new list occasionally.

Circa 1825 Clementi made barrel pianos.

1825 Henderson 6 octave cabinet barrel piano in the Colt Clavier Collection. The piano part of it was made by Broadwood.

1830 William Rolfe & Sons, London, Makers of Self-Acting pianos.

1838 Directory entry: William Rolfe Patent Self-Acting Pianofortes.

1840 Theodore Charles Bates, Piano Forte Maker (also self-acting pianos) 6 Ludgate hill & 65 Dorset street, Fleet street.

Circa 1840 Seytre, of Lyons, patented an organ- piano which seems to have had some form of self-acting ability. "In the interior of my pianos, I place the acting mechanism of an organ or accordion, which plays in all keys, and which accompanies the piano or plays a solo without changing the cardboard roll."

Early player pianos were quite literally "piano players", separate units, pushed up against the keyboard, with mechanical fingers to play the notes, hence the names "Push-Up" or "External Player". Being in a separate cabinet, they are also known as "Cabinet Players". The early success of these units depended very much on the fact that almost everyone already had a piano to which they could be attached.

1863 The Pianista was invented by Fourneaux, Paris. This was probably the first pneumatic piano player with mechanical fingers, and had punched folding cards for the tune sheets. The system was based on technology developed for card- operated looms.

1880 Underwood's Automatic Piano Players used a tune sheet.

1883 Fourneaux made another player operated by card strips.

1884 Underwood had a patent method for perforating paper tune sheets.

1886 New U.S. Patents listed in a bound volume of Scientific American magazine include...

Key board player - - R.T.Smith 347,134

Mech. M.I., Perf. music sheet for G.B.Kelly 350,748

Mechanical musical instrument H.F.Hambruch 352,054

Mechanical musical instrument O.P. Lochmann 350,541

Mechanical musical instrument E.G.Sturm 353,434

Mechanical musical instrument F.E.P.Ehrlich 349,634

Mechanical musical instrument H. Burckas 343,795

Mechanical musical instrument M. Gally 343,900

Mechanical musical instrument M. Gally 351,172

Mechanical musical instrument M. Gally 361,171

Mechanical musical instrument W.T. Weir 352,965

Pneumatic action for mus. ins. F. Stone 253,894

Pneumatic action for mus. ins. M.Gally 351,173

1888 Maxfield's patent for perforating paper tune sheets.

1892 List of Musical Instrument Makers in my Post Office London Directory includes Fourneaux.

I had an enquiry from BBC Pebble Mill about the idea of using a player piano for a story set in the 1890s: I pointed out that, firstly, there were only "piano players", and secondly, there were very few of them.

1896 Perhaps the first pneumatic player pianos, by Thompson.

1897 Army & Navy Co-Operative Society's catalogue includes an ad for Fourneaux's Pianista.

Enhanced enlargement of the Pianista against a piano.

1899 Thompson's pneumatic piano-player.

1900 From the beginning of the century until the war, there were an enormous number of patents and inventions for players.

(Later player information is available via our booklets list.)

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