Edwin Votey's piano-player
Edwin Votey's piano-player, later marketed by Aeolian as the Pianola. This surviving early example resides in the Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC.
Edwin Votey constructed his prototype piano-player system during the spring and summer of 1895, in a workshop at his home in Detroit, USA. It took the form of a large wooden cabinet that stood in front of any ordinary piano, and from the rear protruded a row of felt-covered wooden fingers that were aligned with the keyboard. These fingers activated the piano's keys in the same manner as a human pianist.
Edwin S Votey
Edwin S. Votey is credited as inventor of the pneumatic systems found in most types of player piano.
The player mechanism was powered entirely by suction, generated by the operation of two foot treadles, while tiny perforations on small paper rolls represented the notes to be played. The tracker bar, a pneumatic reading device over which the roll was transported, had a row of equally spaced holes; one for each note. A music roll perforation passing over the tracker bar caused a valve to open, which in turn triggered a pneumatic motor. The latter operated a felt covered wooden finger, pressing the corresponding note on the piano keyboard.
Aeolian push-up player
An Aeolian Pianola external player, noticeably more compact than the prototype model above, seen here with a grand piano.
The basic principal upon which Votey's system operated subsequently became the standard for virtually all roll operated piano playing systems. The Aeolian Corporation in the USA acquired the rights from Votey and marketed his piano-player system from 1897 as the Pianola. Aeolian later became the world's leading manufacturer of roll operated instruments. Votey's main achievement was that he brought together the best of pre-existing designs, to create an instrument that would enjoy mass market appeal for three decades. He therefore did not design the player piano from scratch.

The early external players are often referred to as push-up players, simply because they were pushed up to the piano when required for use. However, they were heavy, cumbersome and difficult to move whenever the owner wished to play the piano by hand. Shortly after the turn of the century, Melville Clark introduced a piano called the Apollo, with a built-in player mechanism and thus was born the player piano. This concept, quickly adopted by other manufacturers, ultimately led to the demise of the external player.

Barrel piano
Forerunner of the pneumatic player piano; a mechanical barrel piano. These were popular with street musicians, whereas the player piano found its place in the home.
Prior to the advent of the Pianola, various attempts had been made to devise a practical method for playing a piano automatically, although none of these achieved a notable degree of success in the home. Many of these early systems relied upon the use of a rotating wooden barrel with strategically placed pins to control the music, rather like a street piano. The musical repertoire was greatly limited, not least by the cost and dimensions of the wooden barrels, each of which would contain a small number of short tunes. In contrast, the paper music rolls used by the Pianola were cheap, compact and easy to mass-produce.
Steinway piano fitted with Pianotist player system
A short-lived competitor of the pneumatic player piano. This Steinway upright piano is equipped with a purely mechanical system called the "Pianotist", sold between 1900 and 1905 by Pianotist Co, New York.
Early instruments could only play a range of 58 or 65 notes from the music roll, whereas the piano typically had 85 or 88 keys. This prevented the accurate rendition of many classical pieces, some of which were specially adapted to accommodate the reduced musical scale. In addition, a number of manufacturers developed their own design of music roll, usually incompatible with other makes of instrument, an example being Hupfeld who introduced a 73 note system. A convention held in 1908 brought about a new industry standard, namely the 88-note roll, subsequently adopted by all manufacturers.
Bechstein Welte reproducing piano
Bechstein upright piano equipped with Welte player system, one of a generation of instruments known as reproducing pianos.
During 1904, the firm of Edwin Welte in Germany had developed a new kind of player piano, known at first as the Welte-Mignon. This instrument and its rivals have over the years come to be known as reproducing pianos, the other main systems being the Ampico and the Duo-Art. Reproducing pianos are so called because they are equipped to reproduce the rubato, dynamics and pedalling of the pianists who recorded for them. Nearly all the major pianists of the early twentieth century made rolls for the reproducing piano.
London Herald announces Wall Street Crash
The Wall Street crash of 1929 brought about the sudden demise of the player piano market.
Following the well-known Wall Street crash of 1929, player piano sales quickly declined dramatically, leaving just a tiny number of manufacturers in business during the 1930s.
1960s Aeolian Pianola
The 1960s saw the arrival of modern compact spinet type players, such as this Pianola by Aeolian.
A 1960s revival of interest resulted in the resumption of player piano production by a handful of manufacturers. Aeolian even produced a modern version of their famous Pianola, and the demand for music rolls increased accordingly. However, production of roll-operated instruments has ceased in recent years, with modern systems such as the Yamaha Disklavier providing an electronically controlled player system inside an acoustical piano.
Yamaha Disklavier
Yamaha Disklavier - a popular modern type of player piano.