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No. 692:
Player Piano

Today, an off-beat technology teases our dreams. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

My parents' windup Victrola was a favorite plaything in the late 1930s. We had a strange eclectic set of records. Caruso sang Andrea Chenier. Frank Krummit sang early Americana. All that formed my own peculiar musical ear.

The sound on our old Victrola was really bad. You learned to hear music, not as it was, but as it should've been. My mother played the piano and sang. From that I extrapolated, as best I could, to glories those scratchy records only hinted at.

Actually, a truer sound technology was in place by then. We didn't have it, but others did. It was the player piano.

Self-playing musical instruments have been around a long time. Organs, driven like music boxes by rotating drums, were popular in the 1700s. People made drum-driven pianos in the 1800s. Then drums gave way to pneumatic key-drivers.

The player-piano came into its own in this century. In 1901, Melville Clark invented the first full 88-key player piano. It didn't yet give you Ravel at the keyboard. You prepared the piano roll by punching paper to match the sheet music. The result was pretty mechanical, but it beat silence when you craved music.

My scratchy records were analog devices. Player pianos use pure on-off digital logic to store sound. That was true of the reproducing piano as well. Piano roll companies soon made pianos that could reproduce a pianist playing. Clark invented a good one in 1912. It was the Q-R-S Music Company's Marking Piano.

Marking meant that a mechanism automatically marked a live player's notes on a paper roll. Then an operator punched holes where the marks were. If a player used rubato or made a mistake, there it was on the master roll. That live-performance fidelity was especially important in preserving early jazz.

Recording pianos changed the business utterly. In 1926 the Q-R-S Company sold 10,000,000 piano rolls. Today it's still possible to hear Debussy playing on your piano. Of course piano rolls missed subtleties of attack and release. Trained ears know a piano roll from the real thing.

Finally, hi-fi put an end to piano rolls. But now player pianos are back in the stores. The new ones are computer driven. Touch-sensitive keyboards pick up dynamic subtleties.

My mother, like most musicians, scorned player pianos. The fantasy of playing the piano without practicing was like the fantasy of going out to quarterback the Oilers.

But technology does fulfill fantasy -- like flying without wings or visiting the moon. The player piano was one more technology that played ongoing counterpoint to our dreams.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Ord-Hume, A.W.J.G., Pianola: The History of the Self-Playing Piano. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1984.

Berkman, R., The Q-R-S Marking Piano. (ASME Buffalo Section's Pamphlet prepared for the National Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmark Designation Ceremony, 1992.) New York: ASME Book No. HH 9201, 1992.

I am grateful to Darlene Cassas and Ron Russak for their counsel on this episode.