Microkhan by Brendan I. Koerner

Ye Olde Tyme Robo-Banjo

June 28th, 2010 · No Comments

We can trace our lifelong fascination with technology to a few choice childhood experiences: our first time playing Pitfall on an Atari 2600, watching The Black Hole on Betamax, and, perhaps above all, visiting The Magic Castle. The foyer of said castle featured a self-playing piano, which responded to audience requests (as long as those songs were on its rolls, we presume). There was something undeniably awesome about seeing the keys press down in rapid succession, even though no human fingers were nearby.

As a result of that early encounter, we count ourselves huge fans of self-playing instruments, even though their heyday occurred many decades before we touched down on Spaceship Earth. And so how could we resist this thoroughly readable history of the Encore Automatic Banjo, an invention that once wowed drunken crowds from Atlantic City to Gary, Indiana. A teaser here:

The first automatic banjo was introduced in 1896, before the name “Encore” was used. It operated by means of an electromagnetic system, of which none are known to survive today. It is theorized that many of the these prototype machines were converted to the later pneumatic system. The magnets used in the electromagnetic version were of the telegraphic type, too jerky and noisy to be practical. Moreover, the only electricity then available was taken from street lights, which caused so much sparking that the paper rolls tended to ignite and endanger the premises. One attempted solution for this problem was to house the automatic banjo in a non-flammable cast iron case, of which at least one of these units was reportedly made, although no trace of it exists today. The cast-iron encased automatic banjo, however, proved impractical, as it was extremely heavy and difficult to move. Another hard to remedy problem was that many prospective customers had no access to electricity at all, and since no practical battery had yet been invented the electrical system was abandoned, in favor of the safer and far more feasible pneumatic system.

Dare we say that the engineers who solved the Automatic Banjo’s many quandaries deserve enshrinement in the Hacking Hall of Fame? In that era, figuring out a way to prevent the inadvertent incineration of music rolls was really no less impressive than devising L0phtcrack.

Much more on the automatic banjo here. And more exotic self-playing instruments here, including the never-popular Tanzbaer Automatic Accordion.

(Image via Draaiorgel.org)

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