Edwin Scott Votey - Inventor of the Pianola (Player Piano)

By Robert Hageman

On January 21, 1931 Edwin Scott Votey passed away at his home at 64 Prospect Street in Summit. He was 74 years of age and had lived on Prospect since 1910. Before that Votey lived on Tulip Street. Surviving him were his widow Annie, two daughters and a son.

Although not a household name today, he was regarded in the early 1900's as a "Genius of the Music World". Let's look into the background of this man, how he achieved his reputation, and when he became an important citizen of Summit.

In 1877, at the age of twenty-one, Votey began selling organs at the retail and wholesale levels throughout Western New York. Four years earlier he started his career as an office boy at J. Estey & Co. who were organ builders in Vermont.

He was born in Ovid, Seneca County, New York. By 1883, achieving some success and gaining experiencein the organ business, he decided to move to Detroit, Michigan where he took out several patents and organized the Whitney Organ Co. to manufacture reed organs. The company later changed its name to Farrand & Votey Organ Co.

Branching out in 1890, Votey spent six months in Europe studying pipe organs while selling reed organs. In that same year he began building pipe organs for churches. Taking out pipe organ patents, his company built the "great organ" (first to be electronically operated) used in the Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. At the same time he invented, built and installed the first Aeolian Pipe Organ at Aeolian Hall, 18 West 23rd Street in New York City.

In 1896, Votey's professional life began to change dramatically. In that year he invented the Pianola, also commonly called the "player piano". He constructed it in his home in Detroit, Michigan. The following year the Votey Organ Company was organized by buying out the pipe organ business of Farrand & Votey Organ Company. The new company was organized to build Aeolian pipe organs and the Pianolas which were produced in Garwood, New Jersey. By 1899 the Votey Organ Company was merged with the Aeolian Company. Votey was elected a director of the Aeolian Company and a Vice President. The Aeolian Company had an interna-tional reputation for their organs and pianos.

The original Pianola was a large wooden cabinet in front of an ordinary piano. At the rear of the cabinet was a row of "wooden fingers" aligned with the piano keyboard. The "wooden fingers"activated the piano keys the same as a human pianist. It was powered by suction which was generated by pressing two foot pedals. Perforations on paper rolls represented the music. The roll moved over a cylinder which also had matching holes. The principle of Votey's system became the standard for all roll operated piano playing systems.

Until 1910 the early player pianos used rolls of 65 notes which did not allow for the playing of many classical works. At an industry conference held in Buffalo, New York the 88 note roll (the full keyboard) was established and used as the standard. By 1919 player pianos outsold standard pianos. The performances of many great pianists of that period have been preserved on these paper rolls. The player piano continued to be popular into the late 1920's.

In 1922 the original model of the Pianola was installed in the Smithsonian Institution. Dr. Walter Hough, curator in charge of the musical instruments department made the following statement:

"The invention of the Pianola has added so much happiness to humankind that we cannot fail to be thankful to its originators. We are happy to receive this original Pianola instrument as one of the most important contributions made to our collection."

Edwin Scott Votey was also active in the affairs of Summit. He was a member of the Summit Common Council serving as its President from 1904-1905. He was a director of the First National Bank and Trust Company of Summit, a member of Canoe Brook Country Club, and a member of the Highland Club. His Stanley Steamer is reported to be the first automobile in Summit.

Mr. Votey's civic duty carried over to his grandson, also named Edwin, who lived in Summit for 48 years. He passed away December 17, 2003 at the age of eighty.

The grandson was a Councilman from 1966-1974 and played a role in Summit's program to establish the Municipal Pool and Golf Course facilities. He was on the Finance Committee and Board of Trustees at Christ Church, acted as a volunteer in the Red Cross and served as Scout Master of Troop 67 in the 1960's.