Some of the Men behind the World's Player Pianos.
As has been remarked elsewhere on this website, inventors of player piano mechanisms were only one part of a greater story. The success of their musical and technical ventures depended in large measure on the efforts of capitalists, entrepreneurs, musicians and, not least, a skilled workforce. But equally, without the inventors there would have been nothing to manufacture and sell. In those innocent days before Sigmund Freud, it was possible for a clever inventor to be anything but self-effacing, as witness the writings of John McTammany, the self-proclaimed "Father of the Player Piano". Much effort seems to have been expended by the many, on trying to prove that they got there before the few. In retrospect it does not seem as important as the fact that someone got there in the end. Probably Edwin Votey, Edward White and William Parker all conceived of the idea of a pneumatic push-up piano player at about the same time, so that the acrimony between the Aeolian Company and Wilcox & White over the precedence of the Pianola or the Angelus was ill-founded.
At any rate, this is the player piano inventors' page, and we offer very brief details of their characters and their works. Those ingenious souls, or at least those whom we know of, who devised the different reproducing piano systems, will be covered on our reproducing piano pages. Here we pay tribute to the inventors of the foot-operated player piano and its predecessors, in alphabetical order. This is a long page!
Theodore P. Brown - Inventor of the first Interior Player Piano
Theodore P. Brown of Worcester, Massachusetts.
Theodore Brown, whose family emigrated from Scotland to the US in the early 18th century, worked in Worcester, Mass, as a partner in Brown & Simpson, and later for his own Simplex Piano Player Company. He was active in the 1890s and later, and was on the committee of the National Piano Manufacturers' Association. Although a number of engineers had managed to install some rudimentary player mechanisms inside normal pianos during the late 1880s and early 1890s, Brown is remembered as the first to have developed a real interior player piano: one that we would recognise today, with the roll inside the piano case at the eye level of the player. His creation, entitled the "Aeriol" Piano in Aeolian Company advertisements, and the "Eriol" by John McTammany, was marketed in 1897, and is covered by four separate patents of the same year.
The Aeriol Piano - Aeolian Company Advertisement, New York, 1897.
At the outset, interior players did not prove popular, and so Brown went on to develop the Simplex Piano Player, one of the rivals to the Pianola. The Simplex was later installed inside player pianos, and Brown was also responsible for a very unusual player mechanism, in the shape of a separate cabinet placed at the side of a normal upright, allowing both player and piano to be independently used. For more information on Theodore Brown, see our factsheet on the Simplex player piano.
Melville Clark - Inventor of the 88-note and the Grand Player Piano
Melville Clark of DeKalb, Illinois.
Melville Clark was born in Rome, New York State, on 31 March 1853. He is best remembered for his Apollo piano player and player piano, and for founding QRS Music Rolls, which still exists, but he was a prolific inventor throughout his working life. After a few early years as a piano tuner, he ended up in California, where he started a reed organ factory, but in 1877 he sold his interest in the business, and moved to Illinois. In 1880 he was a partner in the reed organ firm of Clark & Rich, and in 1884 he joined forces with Hampton L. Story to form the Story & Clark Piano and Organ Company. He recognised the importance of the player piano, and in 1900 set up on his own, as the Melville Clark Piano Company, in DeKalb, Illinois.
The Apollo Concert Grand Piano Player - DeKalb, Illinois, c. 1904.
The three most important developments in which Clark led the player piano world were the 88-note player, the grand player piano, and the transposing device. His first Apollo piano player (1901) played only 58 notes of the keyboard, but it could transpose to a variety of keys. Around 1902 he brought out the Concert Grand Apollo piano player, which used mammoth music rolls, with 88 notes spread out at 6 to the inch, making a roll width of over 15 inches. Four years later he launched his grand player piano with a public demonstration in New Orleans. He is also remembered, along with his brpther, Ernest, for the founding of the Q. R. S. Company in 1899, which still survives as QRS Music, with a piano roll factory in Buffalo, NY. For a more detailed biography of the Clark Brothers, see our factsheet on the Apollo player piano.
James W. Crooks - Inventor of the Accenting Device
James W. Crooks of Boston, Massachusetts.
Little is known of James Crooks, except that he lived in Boston and apparently worked with Ernest Skinner, around the time the latter founded the Skinner Organ Company in 1901. When the Aeolian Company was divided into several component parts in the early 1930s, most of the organ building business was taken over by Skinner, and the resulting Aeolian-Skinner Company became the most renowned of the American organ manufacturers. Even in 1900, at the time of Crooks' patent, there would seem to have been an Aeolian connection, to judge from the clear "Pianola" shape of the piano player in the patent drawings. Perhaps Skinner was under contract to the Aeolian Company as an experimental workshop.
Part of James Crooks' Accentuation Patent - US Patent Office, December 1900.
Nowhere in James Crooks' patent is the word "Themodist" mentioned, and it is clear that further development occurred before the device was incorporated into the Pianola some six years later. For a start, Crooks envisaged a single accenting position on the left of the tracker bar, whereas the Themodist has two, one for treble and one for bass, and instead of Crooks' normal, note-sized perforation, two smaller perforations are used, resembling a ditto mark. Crooks was awarded three patents in quick succession, one for accentuation on the piano player, and two for the alternation of different manuals or stops on a reed organ, all using marginal perforations to achieve their effects. Many manufacturers used similar marginal perforations, with a variety of accenting devices, so Crooks' invention permeated the player industry, and it is a telling sign of John MacTammany's economy with the truth that he fails to mention Crooks at all in his "Technical History of the Player".
George B. Kelly - Inventor of the Wind Motor
George B. Kelly of Boston, Massachusetts.
Until 1877, just before the Mechanical Orguinette Company was founded, George Kelly had been a reed organ action contractor at the Mason & Hamlin factory in East Cambridge, Massachusetts. Together with his partner, Mr Rand, and his nephew, John Given, he began a small independent business, manufacturing music rolls for various styles of organette, and in 1880 this was incorporated as the Automatic Music Paper Company. The business expanded very quickly, and in 1887 he and his partners became major shareholders in the newly established Aeolian Organ and Music Company of Meriden, Connecticut. He continued in this position until well into the twentieth century, being elected to the board of the Aeolian, Weber Piano and Pianola Company in 1903, on which he had responsibility for overseeing the Company's patents. Despite his New York and Connecticut connections, he continued to live in Boston, Massachusetts.
Part of George Kelly's Wind Motor Patent - US Patent Office, February 1887.
Kelly's main wind motor patent is dated February 1887, although there is good evidence that he had invented his motor by 1886. The Mechanical Orguinette Company's Catalogue of that year speaks of the inclusion of a "novel and ingenious device for operating the music sheet, doing away with the small handle." The principle which Kelly established was of a number of pneumatic motors (bellows), whose motion switched their own suction supply on and off through a slide valve. By means of a crank, these pneumatics could be made to operate in sequence, and so transfer their movement to a rotary drive. As soon as his patent expired, nearly all manufacturers made use of wind motors, although it is noticeable that Welte and Hupfeld in Germany often used a different design, somewhat akin to the Wankel petrol engine.
John McTammany - Originator of the Player Piano?
John McTammany of Cambridgeport, Massachusetts.
What to say of John McTammany? This was a man who had been involved in the player industry for nearly all his working life, and who felt so strongly that he had been wronged, that he wrote two lengthy books in order to explain his priority over other inventors. He was quite successful in this latter aim; one only has to look at the Internet to find him portrayed as one of America's unsung heroes. He probably had a distinct lack of commercial acumen, and so saw others becoming rich as a result of what he regarded as his unrecognised labours. The Aeolian Company, together with its inventors, notably Edwin Votey, were not his favourite people, and he unfairly undervalues their contributions to the player industry in his historical books. One must read his works with caution, but they are a wonderful source of technical detail and hot gossip.
John McTammany Organette Advertisement - Cambridgeport, Massachusetts, c. 1880.
McTammany was born in Scotland in 1845, emigrated to the US as a teenager, served in the Civil War, and after short periods developing agricultural machinery and teaching music, finally found his feet as an inventor of mechanical music. This was not his only sphere of activity - he also invented a well-known voting machine - but he spent many years in the development and manufacture of organettes and player reed organs. He regarded the player piano, with its roll at eye level, its player pedals, and its controls, as the culmination of his own activities with organs back in the 1870s. His palpable lack of skill in advertising can be seen above; any other company would have sung the musical qualities of its instruments, or perhaps printed a picture of them in fashionable surroundings, but McTammany resolutely focuses on his own skills as an inventor. For more information on John McTammany and his instruments, see our Organettes and Player Organs pages.
Edwin S. Votey - Inventor of the Pianola
Edwin S. Votey of Summit, New Jersey.
Edwin Votey was born on 8th June 1856 at Ovid, in Seneca County, New York, the son of a Baptist pastor, the Rev. Charles Votey. In April 1873, the Votey family moved to West Brattleboro, Vermont, where Charles Votey had been called to take charge of a newly extablished Baptist church. Here, the young Edwin began his career with the Estey Organ Company, beginning as a humble clerk, and progressing to the position of salesman. This commercial background was a very useful addition to his talents as an inventor.
In due course he moved to Detroit, as Technical Director of the Whitney Organ Company, which later became the Farrand & Votey Organ Company. In 1890 he spent six months in Europe, selling reed organs and studying pipe organs, and later that year his firm added the manufacture of pipe organs to its business. In 1893 his firm produced the first Aeolian Pipe Organ, installed in the early Aeolian Hall at 18 West 23rd Street in New York, and in 1895 he constructed his first Pianola, in a workshop at his home in Detroit. Further Pianolas followed, and he was elected to the board of the Aeolian Company in 1897.
Edwin Votey's Recording Piano - US Patent Office, October 1913.
Edwin Votey remained with the Aeolian Company, as Vice-President, for the rest of his career. Amongst his achievements were the Pianola, the Pianola Piano, the grand Pianola Piano, the Duo-Art, the Aeolian Pipe Organ, and the Duo-Art Pipe Organ. No doubt there were others who also contributed towards these technical developments, but it seems likely that Votey remained directly involved. The US patent above for a real-time roll perforating machine is in his own name, implying that he was central to the development of the Duo-Art reproducing piano, although it was also linked to Aeolian's unsuccessful search for a synchronised player piano and phonograph. For more details of Edwin Votey's career and inventions, see our dedicated factsheet - Edwin Votey - Inventor of the Pianola.
Edward H. White - Inventor of the Angelus
Edward H. White of Meriden, Connecticut.
The story of the Angelus is really the story of two men, not only Edward White, but also William D. Parker, who had been John McTammany's assistant at the Munroe Organ Company in Worcester, Mass, before he joined Wilcox & White in 1888, taking charge of its experimental department. Parker patented an upright player piano as early as 1892, but the roll was on top of the extended case and to the rear of the soundboard, making it impossible to see while playing. Then in 1895 he and Edward White produced a combination upright player piano and reed organ, but in this case the roll was hidden below the keyboard, just as it was in the Angelus grand pictured on our Piano Players page. Finally, in 1897, the two men patented their Angelus piano player, with the roll in what became the established position, in full view of the human player. It must be said, however, that the early Angelus rolls, running from front to back, and from the underside of the two spools, were nothing like as easy to read and control as those on the Pianola, which ran from top to bottom, and from the front. If this is difficult to comprehend at first reading, then the illustration from the Angelus patent of 1897 may help - the roll runs from right to left.
White and Parker's Angelus Piano Player - US Patent Office, 1897.
Edward White, like his father and brothers, and like Edwin Votey as well, was a product of the Estey Organ Factory in Brattleboro, Vermont. He was born on 5 April 1855, and so was a year older than Edwin Votey, and must have known him for at least four years at Esteys, before the Whites moved to Meriden, Connecticut in 1877, to set up the reed organ firm of Wilcox & White. He died very young, aged only 44, in September 1899. Somewhere in the late 1880s or early 1890s, a great animosity developed between Wilcox & White and the Aeolian Company, neighbours across the street in Meriden. Perhaps it was William Parker, who had lost his job at Munroe Organ, and had seen the carcass of the firm devoured by the new Aeolian Organ and Music Company. Perhaps the death of Horace Wilcox around 1890, who had been a director of both firms, caused underlying tensions to break out on the surface. Whatever the case, and despite their close proximity, Wilcox & White were the Aeolian Company's main competitors in the reed organ and piano player market, and they even mastered and manufactured their own music rolls for around twenty years, despite having the largest roll perforating enterprise in the USA a mere hundred yards away from their front door.
Francis L. Young - Inventor of the Metrostyle
Francis L. Young of New York.
Francis Young joined the Aeolian Company in 1899, and worked in various capacities, inventing the Metrostyle in 1901, while on secondment to the Orchestrelle Company in London. He is seen above in 1923, in a clipping from a group photograph taken to celebrate H.B. Tremaine's 35 years with the Aeolian Company. Young's device consisted of two parts, one for recording an inked line on to a music roll, by means of a pen attached to the tempo lever, and the other for following such a line by means of a pointer instead of a pen. Prior to the advent of the reproducing piano, the Metrostyle provided the best guide to interpretation available in the piano player world.
P.K. Van Yorx came a close second with his Artistyle line, used on Angelus rolls, which modified a normal dotted, dynamic line by replacing its dots with the letters A for Accelerate, R for Retard, and T for Tempo. But the Metrostyle line was capable of much greater subtlety, and it was used not only to provide approved interpretations by staff musicians, but also to record the preferred tempi and phrasing of well-known composers and pianists of the day. Elgar, Debussy, Richard Strauss, Rimsky-Korsakov, Grieg - all these and many more "Metrostyled" their own works for posterity.
Francis Young's Metrostyle - Aeolian Company, New York, Autumn 1903.
Once the Metrostyle was in production, Young demonstrated it in various countries, and after a particularly successful trip to Germany, wrote to H.B. Tremaine, recounting the welcome that the new Metrostyle Pianola had received from conservatoires and individual musicians. Ever enterprising in its publicity, Aeolian used the letter as one of its regular series of four-page advertisements in the American magazines. The success of the new device brought promotion for Young, who by 1904 was in charge of the Aeolian Music Department, meaning that he was responsible for new music rolls, overseeing their production from the headquarters at Aeolian Hall in New York. His salary in that year was $7,000, more than any other Aeolian employee other than the top three directors.
It was the ease of use of the Pianola, and its sensibly worked out musical controls, that turned it into the most successful piano player in the world, although the capital and commercial expertise of the Aeolian Company no doubt helped. But as Alfred Dolge diplomatically remarked, "Comparing the drawings of the White-Parker and Votey patents, it is obvious at first glance that the three inventors worked, although at the same time, on entirely different lines to accomplish their object." In the end, White and Parker made a significant contribution towards the onward march of the piano player, but it was Edwin Votey who created the real milestone.
Other inventors on this page could reasonably claim credit for the innovations listed here, although the borderlines between experiment and genuine commercial production are very difficult to assess. Companies tended to quote their own dates of patent application, against other companies' public launch dates, and there can easily be two or three years difference. From our perspective of one hundred years' distance, it is easier to see the overall trends.
Despite the "nostalgia" range of pianolas manufactured in the USA in the 1960s and 1970s, the real era of the player piano only lasted for about 35 years, and during that period, the Pianola was by far the most successful. In the field of the reproducing piano, it may well be that the Welte-Mignon was never surpassed, even though other manufacturers shouted more loudly, and made a great deal more money. But in truth, the Pianola was the most musical of the foot-operated player pianos, and so it managed to combine both artistic and commercial success. For this reason, Edwin Votey made the most telling contribution, and it is not unreasonable to consider him the most important inventor in the field.
Website Links and Other Sources of Information
A Study of Melville Clark and Automatic Expression Rolls - Part of the BluesTone Music Rolls website, run by Rob DeLand, with much information about Melville Clark, his instruments and music rolls.
Melville Clark Piano Company (later the Wurlitzer Company) - Part of a local history project, run by public libraries in the area of DeKalb County, Illinois, USA.
John McTammany's History of the Player - Detailed article on McTammany by British expert, Julian Dyer.
Alfred Dolge - Pianos and their Makers, (2 Vols), Covina Publishing Company, Covina, California, USA, 1911 & 1913.
Republished by - Dover Publications Inc., New York, NY, USA, 1972.
John McTammany - History of the Player, privately printed by Blumenberg Press, New York, NY, USA, 1913.
John McTammany - The Technical History of the Player, The Musical Courier Company, New York, NY, USA, 1915.
Republished by - Vestal Press, Vestal, NY, USA. n.d.
Edwin Votey - Private Papers, photocopy material with the Pianola Institute.
Aeolian Company - Patent Listings, (4 Vols), housed at the Strong Museum, Rochester, NY, USA.