A Journey of a Thousand Rolls Begins with a Single Pump

Working at the Piano Company is amazing. The people, the machines, the atmosphere – it’s a fantastic place. When I started I wanted to get an automatic instrument to practice on at home, and much to my surprise I only had to mention a specific instrument once before my parents went for it.

Case in point – found this on the inside of a cabinet door today.

As of mid-summer, we became the proud owners of a Chickering baby grand piano. Chickering among other names was owned by a parent known as the American Piano Company, which in the mid 19teens introduced their version of a ‘reproducing’ player piano. 

During the years of player piano construction before the Great Depression there were three main types. The first kind is your regular run o’ the mill player that can adjust volume only by shifting the hammer rail. The second is an ‘expression’ piano, where the amount of suction in the stack is varied resulting in loud and quiet tones. The last is the ‘reproducing’ player, where the system is designed to precisely reproduce the sound of human playing.

The stack of a reproducing piano is split down the middle, so the bass and treble sections can play at different volumes, intensities, and crescendos. The system was so accurate that a host of world famous musicians recorded Rolls for reproducing pianos. Rachmaninov plays Rachmaninov, Gershwin plays Gershwin, etc.! All brought into your living room in precise reproduction.

Our Chickering piano is in decent shape, but as is expected the Ampico player has seen better days. The rubber hoses, pneumatic cloth, and cork (blech) seals are shot. In order to get the system playing again, everything has to be rebuilt. When it comes to pneumatic systems like the Ampico, that entails tearing the entire thing apart, replacing every soft material in the whole system, and then putting it all back together. And it has to be airtight. Especially in an Ampico.


1923 diagram of an upright Ampico pump.
The inside of our Ampico pump – likely all original.

As the title implies, the first thing that needs to be done is the pump. The electric motor turns a flywheel which pumps all of the bellows inside the pump. In an Ampico, four bellows are going at once, producing a steady flow of suction. In order to systematically test other parts of the system to make sure they are pulling the correct water inches (a unit of measurement used extensively in the player piano industry) I need a suction like that.

After taking notes and disconnecting what I could, my dad and I dropped the pump out of the piano. That night I had the pump pulled apart and got to take a look at how it all works. I cleaned up some of the metal parts including the screwheads, so as I progress I’ll include posts showing the process. I can’t wait to get it working!

The top of the pump with the vacuum distributor removed. The amplifier pneumatic is also visible.

Oakland Ghost Ship Fire

Two days ago, late Friday December 2nd, a terrible fire on 31st Avenue in Oakland California claimed the lives of at least 24 people during a musical performance. Estimates of casualties go as high as 40, but as I type this the authorities on scene are proceeding with caution through the dangerously weak building. More are expected to be recovered.

The structure was a 4,032 square foot concrete warehouse converted into an eclectic art gallery and performance space called the Oakland Ghost Ship. Pianos, organs, clocks, paintings, vintage and antique furniture, varied benches, and vintage Hi-Fi Equipment were piled high up the walls and around open spaces. Any open wall space was covered in ‘random pieces of wood’. Furniture, cloth hangings and vintage light fixtures hung from ceilings. It was an ideal place for urban artists to display their work, but the fire on Saturday night has brought the dangerous conditions in the warehouse into sharp focus.

No fire exit, sprinklers, or smoke alarms have been recorded in the building. A survivor who tried fire extinguishers couldn’t get them to work. The single exit from the second floor was a staircase constructed of wooden pallets with no handrail – as a Boy Scout I can vouch that a stack of wooden pallets burns well. Most fires we build are constructed either in a teepee or log cabin formation very similar to stacked pallets. The pallet staircase was engulfed in flames and proved inadequate for escape.

The venue had illegal residents living there and illegal events regularly – the city of Oakland was already investigating before the fire. If the organizers and owner of the Ghost Ship has attempted to get the proper permits for the parties and live performances, or for rezoning the structure to residential living space, they would have been denied on allegations of unsafe conditions.

I have done much reading on history over the years, and spent some time on historically important fires. Just based on that knowledge, the lessons from fires as far back as 1903 have gone unheeded. The Iroquois Theatre fire of 1903, the Collinwood School fire of 1908, the Cocoanut Grove club fire of 1942, the Our Lady of the Angels school fire of 1958, and the Station Nightclub fire of 2003 to name a few. The combined lessons of just these disasters alone, of clear un-bottlenecked egress, flammable materials on walls, floors, and ceilings, functioning fire alarms that contact the fire department, and readily accessible fire extinguishers (among others), totaling in over 1,464 deaths, were ignored in this instance.

This fire was needless and avoidable. Our safety codes are built on the ashen rubble of previous fires and are meant to protect the public from ever witnessing disasters like the Iroquois or Cocoanut Grove again. If you don’t read history and learn its lessons you’re doomed to repeat it, as evidenced by the burnt-out warehouse in Oakland today.

My heart goes out to the families of the victims, and to the responders sifting the rubble as we speak. Time will tell what comes from this disaster, but I doubt that there are any new lessons to learn from it. To offer support to those affected, there is a relief fund on YouCaring found here. God bless.