The First PIANOLA, invented by Edwin S. Votey - c. 1895

Votey's 1898 Pianola

    Edwin S. Votey built the first piano-player (often called a "console" or "push-up" in our time), the year being 1895. He was already involved with pipe and reed organ manufacture – and creative marketing – before embarking on this type of mechanism. The Pianola was not the first piano-player but its success was unheralded through elaborate magazine advertising and demonstration concerts in the States and abroad.

    The piano-player was used in connection with a grand or upright piano, rolled up to the keyboard and played the instrument through felt-tipped 'fingers' (of wood and later metal). The roll in front operated a span of 58 notes, which used the existing scale for player reed organs and some pipe organs built at that time. The inside of the Pianola was not unlike that of the later Player-Piano (ie. a player action built into an enlarged piano case), featuring ducts, tubes, valves and all the components of the familiar pneumatic actions.

    How many of this first model were built, before production took place in Detroit MI, is not known to this writer. The traditional Pianola which was mass produced beginning in 1898 had a lower, sleeker appearance, not dominating the front of the piano to which it is attached. Mr. Votey is seen at the right in this picture, donating his original model to The Smithsonian Institution in 1922. That same Pianola - hidden among the pianos and other instruments in their basement location - was still there in 1961 when we visited ... repairing their antique musical boxes at that time. The exterior of this device, which launched a worldwide industry, was pristine ... so if still there, this piano-player could be brought to life again, should a skilled repairman be engaged to tackle the job.

    The 58 note range of the multi-purpose rolls (for organ and piano) was a limiting factor. I touched upon this in my page about player roll developments. Read the first three paragraphs called THE EARLY YEARS here

    In spite of this "organ keyboard" spectrum, the Aeolian Co., now with Votey in charge of many operations, advertised "hand played rolls" would be available in 1899, through displays in The Century and other magazines of the day. Such rolls never appeared. A few demonstrations of the 58 note Pianola along with a record/playback setup using vibrating punch pneumatics did not please the critics of the day; the negative reviews still exist for those who wish to read them. By 1900, Aeolian had expanded the range to 65-notes and the rolls were being developed and annotated for pianos only. The focus now changed to the roll interpreter's tasks and various improvements such as the Metrostyle line (for tempo variation suggestions) and the Themodist (a solo accenting system) began to appear. By 1909 the modern 88-Note roll was standardized. Aeolian in the meanwhile had purchased the Weber Piano Co. (makers also of the Stuyvesant and Wheelock pianos) as well as the Geo. Steck Co. These instruments, beginning in 1903, were called Pianola Pianos in their advertising. They would be considered Player-Pianos by most people today, along with many other brands in the field.

    Until Player-Pianos pushed the Pianola aside as the popular instrument, this piano-player sold many uprights and grands, from Kohler & Chase to Hardman & Peck and just about any other manufacturer active in those days. The promotional partnership ended with the debut of the Geo. Steck and Weber Pianola Pianos (in the 65-Note scale).

If this first model of the Pianola still exists in the Wash. DC museum, I hope it can be rebuilt and performed for the public in the near future.

Votey Pianola - 1895

Here's another view of that "only surviving" 1895 Pianola by Votey, taller and bulkier than the models mass produced, beginning in 1898

-- L. Douglas Henderson
ARTCRAFT Music Rolls
Wiscasset, Maine 04578
Novemer 10, 2011