In the late 19th century player pianos were invented. In the beginning, they just turned scores into music. Later, a method was developed to record the live playing of a pianist. In 1905 the German company Welte & Söhne filed the patent for pianos that could reproduce the recording of a pianist and that could play “as if by an invisible hand and with stunning artistry” (“wie von Geisterhand und mit verblüffender Kunstfertigkeit”).
The actual medium of the record was a paper roll. Pianists were asked to play the piano while a paper roll turned. The keys they played were marked on the paper in the form of little holes – each hole representing one note. The sum of these holes resulted in a recording of the entire piece. The roll was then put into a special piano equipped with a compressed air system which controlled each individual key. While the paper roll turned, the holes regulated the air pressure and the keys were activated whenever “their” hole came around.
Even though player pianos were expensive, they became rather popular and a distinctive feature of bourgeois households.
Famous musicians were contracted to produce paper roll recordings. All over, about 30.000 music titles were distributed on paper rolls in genres like classical music, opera, and popular songs. By the end of the 1920s the gramophone set an end to the era of player pianos.
Duo-Art Reproducing Piano
In 1885, the company Aeolion became an early producer of player piano. For several decades it was the leading seller of these instruments in the American market. Aeolian filed the patent for the “Duo-Art Reproducing Piano”, as presented in this virtual exhibition, 1913. It’s called “Duo” since the instrument did not only serve as a player piano for paper rolls but could also be played by a pianist himself.