John McTammany loved music and he loved machines, and those two loves led to the creation of a perforated paper player for a piano. Upon it, ‘a country clodhopper could play a Beethoven Sonata.’ (His own words.)
His long quest to invent the musical machine aroused ‘ridicule and contempt’ among the music fraternity. His efforts to take credit for it landed him in a series of legal battles.
The player piano based in part on McTammany’s invention would develop into a wildly popular form of home entertainment. By the 1920s, half of all pianos sold in the United States were player pianos. They made many piano manufacturers rich.
John McTammany wasn’t one of them.
War and Convalescence
In 1864, he enlisted in the 115th Ohio Volunteer Infantry of the Union Army. Wounded while guarding the Nashville and Chattanooga Railroad, he had a long convalescence in a Nashville hospital. McTammany could eventually leave his hospital bed. He started to visit a nearby pawnshop where he picked up broken musical instruments to repair.
While fixing a broken music box, he realized the mechanism could be operated by using a perforated sheet of paper. That inspired his idea for the ‘player’ in the player piano.
His Civil War injuries didn’t allow McTammany to return to the reaper business, so he took up music. He taught and played the organ in Akron, Ohio. He also began tinkering with a device that would automatically play the piano and organ.
All the while, McTammany tried to keep his invention secret, fearing the music community would mock and vilify him.
When his health broke down from his war wounds he moved to rural Kansas with his wife’s family. There he continued his experiments and his music teaching. In 1876, he took $500 to a St. Louis jobber and machinist and ordered three players built that could automatically play an organ. The ‘player’ (he never used the word ‘player piano’) could also be attached to a piano, and that’s why McTammany claimed to be the inventor of the player piano.
John McTammany, Traveling Salesman
McTammany traveled to New York and Boston to interest piano manufacturers in his device. He failed. In the fall of 1876, flat broke, he moved to a garret above the Russell Bros. music store on Tremont Street in Boston. There he began making a small, keyboardless automatic organ, or ‘organette.’
Meanwhile others filed patents for player pianos. McTammany claimed they stole his ideas while he peddled them in New York and Boston. He filed a broad patent, and ultimately the Patent Office declared him the ‘original and prior’ inventor of the player. That allowed him to continue making automatic organs out of three buildings in Cambridgeport, Mass.
By 1881, Worcester, Mass., was a center of manufacturing for musical instrument supplies, and McTammany moved his business there. He discovered another company, Munroe Organ Reed Company, infringed on his patents. Typically, he sued. With more money than McTammany, Munroe had the advantage. The company agreed to pay him royalties and hired him as head of the experimental department.
There, McTammany focused on inventing a mechanical banjo.
By then, other musical instrument makers recognized the market potential for the player piano. More patents and more lawsuits ensued. McTammany, of course, was among them, and he lost out. He never received his due, he wrote, as he was overwhelmed by competing claimants who had more money than he did.
After a series of patent fights, he had to take a job as a salesman for Munroe. In 1897, he obtained a patent for a mechanical voting machine, based on perforated paper.
Heyday of the Player Piano
By the turn of the century, several large companies were churning out player pianos, including Wilcox & White and Aeolian Organ and Music Company. Both were located in Meriden, Conn. In England, Queen Victoria bought a player piano just before her death in 1901.
By 1910, player pianos were sold to a mass market as home entertainment. Also selling well were accessories and rolls of music, first mostly classical and then ragtime music.
Igor Stravinsky recognized the possibilities of composing music for player pianos. (You can watch his 1917 Etude pour Pianola on youtube here.) As many as 100 composers followed his example, including Paul Hindemith, Darius Milhaud, Percy Grainger and Herbert Howells.
At one point during the 1920s, half of all pianos sold had players in them. Their sales peaked in 1924, after which radio, phonographs and movies began to take their place. Player pianos then moved into nickelodeons to play along with silent movies.
The stock market crash of 1929 virtually wiped out the player piano business.
In 1913 and 1915, John McTammany published two disputed books of his firsthand recollections as a key inventor of the ‘player.’
McTammany’s health broke down in 1915. He died alone and penniless in a military hospital at Stamford, Conn., on March 26, 1915.
Stamford gave him a public funeral during which the music was played on a grand player piano.
This story was updated in 2022.
Images: Steinway piano CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=729892.