Things You Didn't Know About Wurlitzer #1: The first Wurlitzer electric piano dates to 1899.

This would be the Wurlitzer Tonophone, an early example of a player piano. Powered pneumatically, it featured a system of levers, one corresponding to each key, that "read" a rotating wooden cylinder covered in raised pins. 

The Tonophone was constructed like a normal piano, with generally the same mechanisms as a regular upright. Unlike the electronic piano, which uses technology to eliminate the weight and size of the soundboard, the Tonophone used technology to eliminate the performer. 

A tonophone is something new for Lawrence and it is something that will number its admirers by the hundreds. It is a regular piano in a beautiful case, with a glass front so that the hammers are always in view. Besides this it has an electric attachment that plays the piano from a roll, each roll containing ten numbers.
— Lawrence Daily World, April 1903

This was important. "Background music" was not a thing before the age of recording. Today, a family might put on the radio while spending a quiet evening together. But in the nineteenth century, if you didn't want to sit in silence, you'd ask your daughter to play piano or read a book aloud.

Likewise, today every restaurant and bar has some sort of radio playing in the background. That was obviously unavailable in the nineteenth century. It was either live performers, or the dulcet tones of squeaking chair legs and ambient conversation. Although phonographs were available by the 1880s, recordings were quiet and - to put it lightly - not exactly hi-fidelity. For that reason, even a clunky automatic piano performance was incredibly appealing to most people. 

Wurlitzer sold the Tonophone to restaurants for $700, the equivalent of around $16,000 today. Unlike later paper rolls, cylinders were expensive: they cost $40 (around $900), but they could also be rented for $5 ($125). Each cylinder held ten songs, and the piano had a dial so patrons could select which song they wanted to play. This was unusual among automatic pianos of the time, which were usually capable of only playing songs in the order they appeared on the roll.

On the Tonophone, one play cost 5 cents. Patrons would drop a nickel in the slot, and their chosen song would play through twice. This was because, to fit ten songs on the cylinder, the music was by necessity very brief. If the song played twice, Wurlitzer reasoned, patrons would still feel like they got their nickel's worth.

Learn more about the Tonophone here


Further Reading

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