What powered old player pianos?
January 20, 2017 9:41 AM   Subscribe

In westerns, you always see player pianos at saloons and stuff. It seems they were around in the early 1900s, such that by 1908, an industry standard had developed (according to wikipedia). Not a lot of places had electricity back then. What was powering these player pianos? Did you wind them up? Pump a bellows full of air? How much playing time do you get per how much winding/pumping you do?
posted by Galaxor Nebulon to Technology (7 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
We used to have a piano like that. There were foot pedals connected to bellows to power it--and the subsequent air going through the holes of the music caused the piano keys to go up and down. You kind of had to build up a solid rhythm on the pedals to keep it going and it could be tough going after a while! If you lost steam, the music would kind of wheeze out.
posted by pangolin party at 9:58 AM on January 20, 2017 [3 favorites]

On second look, I think you mean ones that don't appear to be human-powered in non-electricity situations in old movies. I suspect those were really electric ones, though a piano expert might know more.
posted by pangolin party at 10:03 AM on January 20, 2017

Yup, either pedals or movie cheats, I believe.
posted by Quisp Lover at 10:07 AM on January 20, 2017 [1 favorite]

Here's a video of a 1910 player piano that uses clockwork and foot pedals.

Wikipedia is always a good place to check for this kind of stuff. They describe that some player pianos were electro-mechanical, and also have some nice video.

"Electricity was used to operate player pianos from about 1850", with source given, at this pretty reliable site about the history of electronic music.
posted by SaltySalticid at 10:37 AM on January 20, 2017

Electric motors or foot pedals to pump air. My great-grandmother recorded piano rolls back in the 20s and 30s, playing on a special piano that punched the holes or marked the rolls so they could be reproduced for sale.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 11:42 AM on January 20, 2017

Just to be clear (my family owned an Aeolian player that we restored), nearly everything in a player piano is run by vacuum. The paper goes over a tracker bar and is held in place by the vacuum in the system. When one of the holes in the tracker bar gets exposed which opens a valve which in turn exposes a bellows to the vaccuum which closes the bellows, this drives the key action.

Similar things are used to run the roll, drive the pedals, and in the case of pianos with Duo-Art, change the expression as well.
posted by plinth at 12:13 PM on January 20, 2017 [1 favorite]

I have played one of these, and can confirm the foot pedals pumping a vacuum.

It actually makes a lot of sense, as a vacuum system is self regulating - no matter how hard you pump, the system only has to deal with a maximum of 1 Atmosphere of pressure difference. Whereas a positive pressure system would need some sort of regulator mechanism to deal with over-vigorous pumping.
posted by HiroProtagonist at 6:21 PM on January 26, 2017

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