The Apollo

The Apollo Piano Player - The Melville Clark Piano Company, DeKalb, Illinois, c. 1901

In 1900, Melville Clark, an experienced reed organ and piano manufacturer, left his active partnership in the Story & Clark Organ and Piano Company, and set up on his own, as the Melville Clark Piano Company, in DeKalb, Illinois. In a very short time his company was producing the Apollo Piano Player, which played 58 notes of the piano, and which could transpose to other keys by means of a patented, sliding mechanism.

Melville Clark's Apollo Factory - DeKalb, Illinois, USA, 1900 onwards.

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88-note Instruments
According to American advertisements in 1909, when the whole piano trade was turning to the 88-note player, the Apollo Company had brought out the Apollo Concert Grand Piano Player in 1902, although the instrument does not seem to have been advertised in Europe until 1905. It is always difficult to pinpoint exact dates in situations where the precedence of inventions is at stake! Whatever the case, the Concert Grand Apollo fitted in front of a normal piano, and could play all 88 keys. It used a mammoth music roll, with perforations spaced at the same 6 to the inch scale as the normal piano rolls of the time, and so measuring over 15 inches in width. This model of the Apollo does seem to have been the first 88-note player instrument in the world, and is therefore one of the areas in which Melville Clark blazed the trail.

The Apollo Concert Grand Piano Player - DeKalb, Illinois, c. 1904.

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The First Grand Player Piano
Melville Clark introduced his first Apollo Player built in to a grand piano in the spring of 1906 in New Orleans. It made its début recital on 19 December at the St Charles Hotel in that city, which represented the first public occasion on which a normal player mechanism had been allied to to a grand piano.

The Apollo Grand Player Piano - DeKalb, Illinois, USA, 1906.

The performer at the grand piano's first concert was E.J. Delfraisse, not a Pianolist, one imagines, but an Apollonian. His programme is reproduced here, providing an insight into popular taste of the time. It gave Mr Delfraisse the opportunity to provide not just solos, but also a vocal accompaniment, and included what looks suspiciously like a special, "unplayable" player piano arrangement of a Sousa March.

Debut of the Apollo Grand Player Piano - New Orleans, Louisiana, USA, 1906.

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General Introduction of the 88-note System
Upright Apollo player pianos were also in production, and the Company made a publicity feature of their 88-note capabilities. This pioneering quality only lasted until December 1908, however, when the majority of player manufacturers agreed, at a conference in Buffalo, New York, called by the A.B. Chase Company, to a set of mechanical standards for a new 88-note system, on which the spacing of the notes was set at 9 to the inch, allowing an 88-note roll to occupy the same width as the older 65-note variety. Newer and more sensitive mechanisms meant that the smaller perforations could still work as promptly as the older and wider ones.

Melville Clark's Invention Rolls Along - DeKalb, Illinois, c. 1908.

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The Apollonian Clockwork
All Apollos used a patented clockwork motor to drive the music roll, wound up by a pneumatic attached to the player pedals. This is perhaps not ideal for subtlety of tempo control, but it was very stable, and had the advantage of providing the player with a free ride during re-roll.

Melville Clark's Patent Metronome Motor.

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The Apollo-Phone
Perhaps the most complicated development of the normal Apollo was a combined player piano and phonograph, the Apollo-Phone, which used the same spring motor to drive both devices. When the player piano was not in use, the top half of the roll frame was used as a soundbox for the phonograph. It would appear, from the simplicity of the phonograph drive connections, that no attempt was made to synchronise the two devices.

The Apollo-Phone, a Combined Player Piano and Phonograph.

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Melville Clark and QRS Music Rolls

Melville Clark - Inventor of the 88-note and the Grand Player Piano.

Melville Clark, whose seaside photograph below displays a certain sense of style, was born into a musical family in Rome, New York State, on 31 March 1853. He is best remembered as the inventor of the Apollo, but he also founded QRS Music Rolls, which still exists, and he was a prolific inventor throughout his working life. After a few early years as a piano tuner, he ended up in California, where he started a reed organ factory, but in 1877 he sold his interest in the business, and moved to Illinois. In 1880 he was a partner in the reed organ firm of Clark & Rich, and in 1884 he joined forces with Hampton L. Story to form the Story & Clark Piano and Organ Company. He recognised the importance of the player piano, and in 1900 founded the Melville Clark Piano Company, in DeKalb, Illinois.

Melville Clark in Holiday Mood - c. 1909.

No-one quite knows how Melville Clark's Q. R. S. Company acquired its name. One theory is that mail coming into the factory for music rolls happened to go into the pigeonhole for Q, R and S, but this is really only a guess. From the Company's foundation in 1899, Ernest G. Clark, younger brother of Melville, was the President and Treasurer, and in 1909 succeeded Charles H. Wagener as Vice-President of the parent company. When Melville Clark died in 1918, Ernest Clark continued music roll operations with the Clark Orchestra Roll Company, which specialised in the manufacture of rolls for coin-operated player pianos.

Ernest G. Clark - First President of the Q. R. S. Company.

One of Melville Clark's significant music roll achievements was the development of a recording piano, in 1912. He was by no means the only person to have made such an instrument, but his piano has the unique distinction of still being in existence, in the present-day QRS roll factory in Buffalo, NY.

The Melville Clark Recording Piano - DeKalb, Illinois, c. 1912.

In his private life, Melville Clark was married, and he and his wife, Elizabeth, had at least two children, a son, Melville, who followed his father into the business, and a daughter, Helen, who was born in 1891. He was, by all accounts, a fit and lively man with a good sense of humour and a generosity of spirit, who was always thinking up new ideas and jotting them down in a series of small notebooks which he carried around on all occasions - a true inventor! He died on 5 November 1918.

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Website Links and Other Sources of Information

A Study of Melville Clark and Automatic Expression Rolls - Part of the BluesTone Music Rolls website, run by Rob DeLand, with much information about Melville Clark, his instruments and music rolls.

Melville Clark Piano Company (later the Wurlitzer Company) - Part of a local history project, run by public libraries in the area of DeKalb County, Illinois, USA.

Harriet Wilson Davy (ed.) - From Oxen to Jets: a History of DeKalb County, 1835-1963, Rogers, Dixon, Illinois, USA, 1963.

Alfred Dolge - Pianos and their Makers, (2 Vols), Covina Publishing Company, Covina, California, USA, 1911 & 1913.

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