Edwin Votey, Inventor of the Pianola

Edwin Votey as Vice-President of the Aeolian Company.

Edwin Votey's Place in History
Edwin Votey is rightly credited as the inventor of the Pianola, but this does not mean that roll-operated musical instruments sprang from nowhere at the end of the nineteenth century. In both the United States and Europe a large number of engineers and musicians had been involved in their development and manufacture over a period of some twenty-five years. By the time Votey arrived on the scene, roll-operated American organs were widespread, and even a few experimental roll-operated pianos had been manufactured and sold. But his Pianola, the first of which he completed in his home workshop at 312, Forest Avenue West, Detroit, by the spring or summer of 1895, was the first roll-operated piano playing device that transcended the experimental, and so allowed truly musical performances to be achieved by means of piano rolls. Votey's other achievements included the invention and development of the Aeolian Pipe Organ, the design and administration of numerous musical instrument factories, directorships within the Aeolian Company and other enterprises, and even periods of office as a local councillor in his adopted city of Summit, New Jersey. He was widely-travelled, having responsibility for overseeing many of the Aeolian Company's international subsidiaries, and he was an enthusiastic and very early owner of an environmentally-friendly automobile, namely a Stanley Steamer.

The Young Edwin Votey at the Start of his Career.

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Early Years
Edwin Votey was born on 8th June 1856 at Ovid, in Seneca County, New York, the son of a Baptist pastor, the Rev. Charles Votey. The Votey name is of Huguenot origin, originally 'de Vauxtie', and was introduced into North America around 1745. In April 1873, the Votey family moved to West Brattleboro, Vermont, where Charles Votey had been called to take charge of a newly extablished Baptist church. Formerly a meeting-house for the Universalist Society, the building had been purchased and repaired with funds from the three directors of the Estey Organ Company, by far the most important employers in town.

The Brick Church at West Brattleboro, Vermont, where the Rev. Charles Votey was pastor.

In such a situation, it was almost inevitable that a bright young man should begin his career in the organ-building industry, as a clerk at the Estey Organ Company, and Edwin Votey was soon on the road, as a reed-organ salesman and technician. Esteys was clearly something of a hothouse for the encouragement of talent, a sort of unofficial university for pneumatic engineers, because it was not only Edwin Votey who began his career there, but also the White Brothers, who ran Wilcox & White, and who helped to invent and develop the Angelus, the next most successful piano player after the Pianola.

The Estey Organ Company factory, Brattleboro, Vermont.

Before long, Edwin Votey's engineering skills came to the attention of a wealthy Detroit music dealer, C.J. Whitney, who bought out the failing Detroit Organ Company, renamed it the Whitney Organ Company, and set up Edwin Votey as the Technical Director.
W.R. Farrand, the son of a successful local drugstore owner, was put in to run the administration, and when Whitney retired in 1887, the name of the firm was changed to the Farrand & Votey Organ Company. In 1890 Edwin Votey spent six months in Europe studying pipe organs and selling reed organs, and later that year his firm added the manufacture of church pipe organs to its business.

The Farrand & Votey Organ factory, Detroit, in 1887.

A Farrand & Votey Reed Organ from 1892.

In 1892 Farrand & Votey purchased the pipe organ business of Hilborn and Frank Roosevelt, located at 135th Street and Park Avenue, New York City, a few years after the death of Hilborn L. Roosevelt, a cousin of Theodore, the US President. This gave Farrand & Votey control of many fine patents, especially connected with electric action work, and they soon scored a notable success with an organ constructed in 1893 for the Columbian Exposition in Chicago. In the same year they also built the first Aeolian Pipe Organ, which was installed in the early Aeolian Hall at 18 West 23rd Street, New York. Their instruments now ranged from ornate reed organs to grand residence pipe organs, as well as organs for important public establishments, as shown in the illustration from January 1898, of the Votey Pipe Organ in Steinway Hall, Chicago.

An Artist's Impression of a Private Soirée at the Aeolian Pipe Organ.

The Votey Pipe Organ in Steinway Hall, Chicago.

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The Pianola
Edwin Votey constructed his first Pianola by the spring or summer of 1895 at his home in Detroit, with other prototypes following in 1896/97, and production starting in earnest in 1898. In that year the work on Aeolian Pipe Organs and pianolas grew out of all proportion, and the Votey Organ Company was organised, buying out the relevant areas of the Farrand & Votey business. From then on, the first three years of Pianola manufacture were undertaken in Detroit, at the Company's factory at 1256 to 1260 12th St, though Edwin Votey was already intimately connected with the Aeolian Company, having been elected to the board in 1897.

The new Pianola in late 1898.

Although Votey applied to patent the Pianola in November 1899, protection was not awarded until July 1904. The published US patent, no. 765645, is actually for an intermediate form of the instrument. A handwritten note on the Aeolian Company's file copy of the patent quotes Aeolian director, George B. Kelly, as follows: "This patent is not for the original player, which was made in 1895, but a proposed form which was not adopted, and the older form was used in manufacture."

Views from the Original Pianola Patent of 1904.

In 1898 the Votey Organ Company was purchased by the Aeolian Company, and a new purpose-built factory was soon constructed for it in Garwood, New Jersey, manufacture being transferred there from around August 1900. The factory was built on a site adjacent to North Avenue, Garwood, with the Central Railroad of New Jersey tracks at the rear. In August 1903, a new holding company was set up, known as the Aeolian, Weber Piano and Pianola Co, and Edwin Votey became Vice-President, Company Secretary and Technical Director.

Front View of the Aeolian (Votey Organ Company) Factory at Garwood.

View of the Garwood Factory from the Railroad Tracks.

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Votey's Career with the Aeolian Company
The years between 1900 and 1930 were the summit not only of the Aeolian Company's achievements, but also of Edwin Votey's career, and perhaps he enjoyed the conceit of living in Summit, New Jersey, as well. As Company Secretary, Votey had a particular responsibility for attending subsidiary company meetings, necessitating a great deal of travel overseas, and as Technical Director, he supervised the construction and layout of the organisation's many factories.

Edwin Votey in middle life, soon after joining the Aeolian Company.

It is for the invention of the Pianola that Edwin Votey is chiefly remembered, but he also led the teams which refined and developed the Aeolian Pipe Organ, the Pianola Piano, the Grand Pianola Piano, and the Duo-Art, the Aeolian Company's reproducing piano, which preserved the playing of Paderewski, George Gershwin, Percy Grainger and many hundreds of other pianists for future generations.

Construction of a large Aeolian Pipe Organ at Garwood in 1925.

Tubing up a Duo-Art Grand Piano at Garwood around 1929.

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Development of the Music Roll
The success of the Aeolian Company's instruments depended on the range and accuracy of the music rolls that they played, and the evidence of Votey's intimate involvement in these matters can still be seen in the Votey tester rolls that the US Aeolian Company produced, and also on some of the surviving pattern rolls from the Aeolian factory in London, England, where different English and Votey dynamic lines are clearly marked. Indeed, at the London music roll factory a special Votey machine was introduced around 1920, which used stencils to print dynamic and tempo lines at high speed, and in two separate colours.

The Roll Label from an American 65-note Votey Tester Roll.

Evidence of the Votey stencil machine in London can be seen on the works progress card illustrated below, which needs a little explanation. It is one of at least two that remain from the many hundreds of thousands that would have been used at the Universal Music Company factory in Hayes, Middlesex, to the west of London. Universal was the roll perforating subsidiary of the Aeolian Company, whose London factories were mostly located in Hayes, which at that time was in the middle of the countryside, but which is now in the busy industrial surroundings of Heathrow Airport. The job card only survived because it was used for special purposes, and it charts the progress of Themodist roll no. T300018C, the Raymond Overture by Ambroise Thomas, perforated on 3 September 1920 by Jack Draper, spooled on the same day, and "sent to office for Votey Machine", as the handwriting clearly indicates.

An Aeolian Company Works Progress Card for Roll T300018C.

One of the most complex developments produced by Aeolian's roll factories was the Duo-Art AudioGraphic music roll, on which lengthy, illustrated programme notes were printed, as an introduction and running guide to the music. See our Stravinsky page for an example taken from the series devoted to that composer's Firebird. The AudioGraphic series of rolls was launched in London around 1926, with a grand banquet for those involved. Most of the important musical scholars in Britain are to be seen attending this dinner, including Percy Scholes, General Editor of the series. Edwin Votey also has his place at the top table, beside his fellow American, and long-term business acquaintance, William R. Steinway.

The Launch of the AudioGraphic Series of Music Rolls.

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Other Inventions and Directorships
During the First World War, Votey became actively engaged in the development of an automatically controlled aeroplane for bombing purposes, along with Charles Kettering and others, at the former Wright Brothers airfield at Dayton, Ohio.

The Kettering "Bug" - the First Guided Missile, Dayton, Ohio, 1919.

Effectively the first guided missile, this plane came to be known as the Kettering "Bug", and it made substantial use of player-piano type pneumatic mechanisms for the control of both direction and altitude, in conjunction with a gyroscope and an aneroid, as found in barometers of the time. The Aeolian Company contracted to manufacture the pneumatic portion of these control mechanisms, which used a modified form of the Company's 88-note roll-tracking system, with balanced pairs of pneumatics, as can be seen in this image from the Kettering patent.

Part of Charles Kettering's Design for the "Bug", US Patent no. 1,623,121.

Votey was also on the board of a number of banks and mortgage companies, a director of the National Lock Washer Company, and a member of the Engineers' Club. For a short while he served as a councilman in Summit, New Jersey.

Family and Friends
Edwin Votey's family life seems to have been both happy and uncomplicated. In 1878 he married Annie M. Gray of Phelps, New York, and they had three children, a son, Charles, and two daughters, Fanny and Edwina. Charles followed his father into the Aeolian Company, where he rose to be in charge of the Company's many factories, and Fanny, who upon marriage became Fanny Votey Rogers, trained as a concert pianist, and recorded several Duo-Art and Metro-Art music rolls. Curiously, the family seems not to have had a Pianola at home, preferring the simplicity of a normal piano.

Mr and Mrs Votey in later life.

Edwin Votey continued his active business affairs until the spring of 1930, when he retired on account of poor health, though retaining his directorships of the Aeolian Company. He died on 21st January 1931, at the age of 74, and was buried in Chatham, New Jersey, about a mile away from his home in Summit.

Edwin Votey's simple Gravestone in Chatham, New Jersey.

It is one of life's happy coincidences that Edwin Scott Votey's grandson Ted, also named Edwin Scott Votey, should have chosen to retire to Summit, New Jersey, the very town where his grandfather had lived. In this way he rendered himself agreeably easy to find. It is also very fortunate that Ted's wife, Pat, insisted on their keeping Edwin Votey's papers safe over the years. This webpage, and several other Pianola Journal articles owe a great debt to their foresight!

Pat and Ted Votey with Rex Lawson, beside the former Aeolian Factory at Garwood in 1997.

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