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
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
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 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