The Story & Clark Storytone was, arguably, the first commercially available electric piano. Its development was a joint venture between the Story & Clark Piano Company (U.S.) and the Radio Corporation of America (RCA-Victor). Several of these pianos have come up for sale recently (see below), so it was felt a closer look at this important historic instrument was necessary.
Story & Clark was one of America’s major piano houses. Established in 1884 it initially specialised in organ production, but by the 1890s had become an recognised piano manufacturer.
RCA was founded in 1919 and was dominant in the world of electronics and communications. In 1929 it purchased the Victor company which led to a move into the world of phonographs and records.
How the collaboration between the two companies came about is unclear, but looking back it did seem an obvious pairing. Story & Clark manufactured the piano, whilst RCA-Victor was responsible for the voicing.
John Vassos, a leading industrial designer, had developed some of RCA-Victor’s most iconic phonographs (record players), and he and Robert Budlong, of Zenith radio fame, are credited with designing the stunning Art-Deco-styled Storytone Electric Pianos.
At this time an electric, or more accurately “electro-mechanical”, piano was essentially a normal acoustic piano but with the soundboard replaced by electric amplification. Electromagnetic pickups convert the vibration of the strings into an electrical signal which is then amplified and fed to a loudspeaker. Certain subsequent electric pianos (e.g. Wurlitzer, Fender Rhodes) used reeds or tines instead of strings as the vibrating medium.
The Storytone wasn’t the first electric piano to be developed, but it was probably the first to be produced commercially. It was launched at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York to much acclaim.
Considerable effort had already been devoted to perfecting the electric piano concept. Earlier examples include: the Neo-Bechstein (1928), Miessner’s Electronic Piano (1930); the Radiopiano (1931); the Elektrochord (1932); the Superpiano (1932); the Pianotron (1933); the Lautsprecherklavier (1935); the Varichord (1937), the Electone (1938); the Dynatone (1938); Bernhardt’s Electronic Piano (1938); and the Minipiano (1938).
Like the Storytone, most of these instruments utilised the work of American inventor B.F. Miessner who in 1929 was granted a patent for a method of converting sound waves into electrical energy. This was the first patent for an electromagnetic pickup.
The Storytone uses such electromagnetic pickups located just behind each string. Their output is fed to an integral valve amplifier and loudspeaker.
Two rotary controls are located on either side of the keyboard — volume/tone to the left, and on/off to the right. When a string is played on a normal piano energy is used to vibrate the soundboard, causing the string’s oscillations to be damped. The absence of a soundboard means that this energy isn’t lost and the note will, if required, sustain for far longer.
The Storytone has three pedals — soft, sustain, and swell. It was claimed that the instrument could produce organ-like sounds, and create harpsichord, music box, and chime effects. And with the volume turned right down, the instrument could be used as a quiet practice piano.
There are two main models — the Storytone Moderne with an elegant curved Art Deco louvred case, and the much rarer Storytone Console which had a more traditional style with decorative legs supporting the keyboard.
A special bench housing a turntable (a Victrola phonograph) and a radio was available as an optional extra. These devices were linked to the main body of the piano in order to utilise the instrument’s amplification system.
A booklet entitled “Storytone Technique” was released to accompany sales of the instrument.
The Storytone was not a commercial success. Starting at around $695 it was expensive – for that kind of money one could buy a basic grand piano at that time. It was also fragile. And the sound quality was considered to be a little below par.
Manufacture ceased in 1942. It is estimated that around 150-250 units were produced, but an exact figure is not known.
Several examples of this comparatively rare and now highly sort after instrument have appeared on the market recently. More details can be found on the following company’s websites…
World Piano News is 100% editorially independent. We do not receive any remuneration or commission for publishing this article or for listing these websites.