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Player Piano

John McTammany, player piano pioneer, has been credited with the invention of the instrument, having patented several devices that were important to the development of automatic piano construction. However, it has been said that credit must be shared with many others, both in the United States and in Europe, for having contributed important principles and components to what became a very popular distraction during the early part of the 20th century.

In 1881, a patent was issued to McTammany for his invention of a player piano. The Cambridge, Massachusetts-based inventor's patent described his mechanical musical instrument as a "mechanism for automatic playing of organs using narrow sheets of perforated flexible paper which governed the notes to be played." Apparently, McTammany had the engineering know-how to come up with a fully functional player piano, but lacked the marketing savvy or financial resources to turn his invention into a commercial success. Thus, the first completely automatic piano player to be manufactured in the U.S. was the "Angelus" made in 1897, which was patented by its inventor, Edward H. Leveaux, in England in 1879, and who was issued a U.S. patent in 1881 for an "apparatus for storing and transmitting motive power."

By 1910 player pianos had become very popular, especially among the affluent, as a form of home entertainment. By this time, standardization of roll sizes and perforation spacing had paved the way for mass penetration of the market, and salesmen were served well by selling not only the pianos, but the new rolls and accessories that went with them post-purchase, which kept business strong for some time. Additionally, with the player piano, everyone, musically skilled or not, became a potential customer.

During the Great Depression the player piano saw its popularity diminish. This, coupled with the advent of the motion picture, further decreased its widespread popularity as the public began spending less time entertaining itself at home. But then, the player piano was introduced to the picture house as an accompaniment to the silent movies — as sort of a poor man's orchestra. Some of the pianos were "beefed up" with pipe organs and effects which would allow the accompanist to capture the mood of the film. But then, when films became "talkies" and sound came with the film and was played through electrical reproduction devices, the player-piano became relatively forgotten. The device remains more of a curiousity than anything else to this day.

Meanwhile, McTammany ended up leaving the music business shortly after his patent was granted, and he turned his inventiveness to creating voting machines. There are no details of them in his player piano books, but the use of punched paper rolls in player pianos suggests that there is a direct link with those devices and with punch-card voting machines, which are still used widely today. Reportedly, McTammany later turned his efforts to the temperance movement and prohibition. He died in 1915 at the age of 70.

[October 2001]



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