- Edmond T. Johnson
A piano fitted with a self-playing mechanism. Its different forms vary considerably in their musical capabilities and the underlying mechanisms, as well as in the amount of human intervention required for their operation.
The earliest form, the barrel piano, first appeared around 1800 as a portable street instrument. Often very limited in range and typically lacking a keyboard, it was either carried by hand or wheeled on a cart by an operator who powered it by continuously turning a crank. During the 19th century these street pianos, sometimes referred to as “hurdy-gurdies,” were a regular presence on streets of large cities in both Europe and America. Due to their generally poor intonation and coarse timbre, and the limited repertoire of melodies they were capable of playing, street pianos were often considered a nuisance by those who live and worked nearby. Most barrel pianos in American cities were made in Italy or England. However, George Hicks, a British maker, moved to the United States and opened a shop in Brooklyn; one of his large barrel pianos (...