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An advertisement for the Aeolian Company from the October 26, 1908 edition of The New York Times.
The Æolian Company was a manufacturer of player organs and pianos.

History

It was founded by New York Citymarker piano maker William B. Tremaine as the Æolian Organ & Music Co. (1887) to make automatic organs, and, after 1985, as the Æolian Co. automatic pianos as well. (He had previous founded the Mechanical Orguinette Co. in 1878 to manufacture automated reed organs.) The manufacture of residence or "chamber" organs to provide entertainment in the mansions of millionaires was an extremely profitable undertaking, and Aeolian virtually cornered the market in this trade, freeing them from the tight competition of church-organ building with its narrow profit margins. Elaborate cases and consoles were often featured in residence organs. In other installations, the pipes were hidden behind tapestries, under or above staircases, or spoke from the basement through grilles or tone chutes.

The pianola, a pneumatic player piano, soon after became extremely popular. It had been invented in 1895 by Edwin S. Votey, president of the Farrand & Votey Organ Co., Detroit. In 1897, Votey joined Aeolian and in 1900 the firm obtained the patent for such instruments.

In 1903, Tremaine absorbed a number of companies making self-playing instruments, including the [Albert] Weber Co., a New York piano maker since 1852, into the Aeolian, Weber Piano & Pianola Co.

In 1904 Aeolian sued the Los Angeles Art Organ Company for patent infringement of its player mechanism, leading to court victories that effectively shut down a competitor. Other patent lawsuits were not always successful.

As the pianola, in its turn, was supplanted by the newer Æolian’s “Duo Artreproducing piano (1913), which could reproduce the sound of a famous artist playing without manual intervention, the Æolian, Weber Piano & Pianola Co. became the world’s leading manufacturer of such roll-operated instruments.

Interestingly, in 1916 the Æolian Co. started making Vocalion phonographs and in 1917/8 started Vocalion Records, a maker of high-quality discs which in December 1924 was sold to Brunswick Records. The phonograph was one of the main factors in the demise of the player piano, although Starr made players and records as well as pianos. An attempt of the company to engage in the production of church and concert organs resulted in important installations at Duke Universitymarker Chapel and Longwood Gardensmarker. It was undermined by the Great Depression, during which the organ division was merged with the E.M. Skinner Organ Co. to become the Aeolian-Skinner Organ Co., a leading builder until the 1970s. As the popularity of the player piano faded with the rise of the gramophone and radio, the company merged in 1932 with the American Piano Corp. (itself a 1930 consolidation of Chickering & Sons, Knabe & Co., and other manufacturers). The combined company was the Aeolian Corp. in 1959; it declared bankruptcy in 1985.

Location

Æolian was first located at 841 Broadwaymarker, in the heart of the piano district; the company later moved to 23rd Street, and then to 360 Fifth Avenuemarker. Aeolian Hallmarker (1912-13), 33 West 42nd Streetmarker, housed the firm’s general offices and demonstration rooms as a recital hall on the 43rd Street side where many noted musicians performed and was where the first Vocalions were made. The building was sold by Aeolian in 1924. The firm's pipe-organ factory was in Garwood, N.J.marker, until the merger with the E.M. Skinner Co.

The firm returned to Fifth Avenue in 1925. The firm’s facilities in the new Aeolian Building included a 150-seat recital hall, recording studios for Duo Art piano rolls, offices, design studios, drafting rooms, and a director’s room in the upper stories. The Aeolian Company (as Aeolian American Corp.) remained in the Aeolian Building until 1938, after which it leased half of Chickering Hall on West 57th St. .

Copyright law

It was Congressional suspicion of the market power of the Aeolian company during the early 20th century that prompted adoption of the first compulsory license system in U.S. copyright law, for the mechanical reproduction of musical compositions, a category that included piano rolls.

References


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