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Pianos and Pianists - Consultant Editor Ates Orga


A Plaine and Easie Introduction

"Rhapsodies in Wrapping Paper"

"No Ear Could Tell What You See In The Mirror - That He Plays Without Touching the Keys. The Biggest Thrill in Music is playing it Yourself. And now even untrained persons can do it. You can play better by roll than many who play by hand. And you can play ALL pieces while they can play but a few" - from a Gulbransen of Chicago "Easy to Play" advertisement, The Saturday Evening Post, October 17th 1925.

The Idea

The early 20th century self-playing automatic piano - what most people generically if indiscriminately call the pianola - used pneumatic leverage to activate the hammers, triggered by a mechanism driven by a paper-roll (piano roll) of varyingly placed and lengthened perforations corresponding with the pitches and rhythmic durations of a given piece of music or performance. Pneumatic systems, calling for greater power at the bass end, were highly complex technology, including typically: (a) a sensing device (tracker bar assembly with spaced holes corresponding to each hammer - these allowed a passage of air to activate the mechanism controlling the hammers); (b) bellows pump (providing a vacuum supply or wind pressure); (c) reservoir/equaliser (spring-loaded bellows for storing and regulating the wind supply); (d) a pneumatic stack (air-activated pouches, valves and bellows); and (e) a wooden wind-chest (filled with pressurised air). The efficient maintenance and fine tuning of the pneumatic system was critical to its reliability.


There were two basic types of system, external and internal. Pushed up to any quality of grand or upright piano and aligned, the external - "a small thing," the makers publicised, "an ornamental cabinet, beautifully proportioned, in oak or mahogany or ebony," price $250 - had levered "fingers" lying over the keys of the instrument, servicing them as and when activated. In its original foot-treadled (pumped) guise - two treadles generating "degree of force and speed, as the player wills" - it was known as a Piano player, Push-up or Pianola. In its later electrically-motorised cabinet form, equipped with felted wooden "fingers" and pedal activating mechanism, it was called a Vorsetzer (c 1904).

The internal (popularised c 1900), built into the case of the instrument, and physically connected with the hammer action via a "striking pneumatic", was known as an Inner Player or Player piano. With such models the integrated spool/roll-box location for uprights was usually in the area above the keyboard. For grands it was either above the keyboard (extending the physical but not the playing length by up to a foot), or else in a draw below. Compared with the average four minute side of acoustic 78s of the period, the duration of rolls varied from around ten minutes to impressive jumbo-spoolings of thirty capable of sustaining lengthy sonatas (New Ampico Model B, 1929).

Perversions & Practicalities

Doubling as either automatic or manual instruments, most pianos retained their keyboards. But because the principle of pneumatic action works on the hammers, not the keys, you don't actually have to have one. There was a keyless "red Welte" (or Welte Mignon) piano made around 1904, a purely reproducing invention, with an attachable keyboard to help (understandably) disorientated tuners. Twenty years earlier, there'd been an even stranger mutation - a piano without hammers but with strings energised by electromagnets. From as early as 1899, "transposers" were common to many instruments, allowing for transposition to up to nine different keys (Hupfeld Phonola) - useful when accompanying singers. Generally, but not always, transposition was achieved by shifting the brass tracker bar, so that the perforations of the roll became re-aligned with new sets of pitch-holes.

© Ates Orga February 5th 1999

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