Barrel pianos were first developed in the early 19th century as an attempt to mechanically automate piano music. They never found their way into homes in any significant quantity, instead being favored by street musicians and other entertainers and as background music in commercial premises. It is believed that in circa 1805 the famous cabinet making family of Hicks in Bristol England turned their attention to the building of musical instruments and are credited with inventing and building the very first street barrel piano in Bristol around this date. So by 1816 the firm of Joseph Hicks was well established as a leading supplier of barrel street pianos and organs. The Hicks pattern of street piano was so popular that other firms copied the design. One of the Hicks family, John had a workshop in London and this may be why sometimes it is believed that the production of barrel pianos originated in London,
A barrel piano (also known as a “roller piano”) is a forerunner of the modern player piano. Unlike the pneumatic player piano, a barrel piano is usually powered by turning a hand crank, though coin-operated models powered by clockwork were used to provide music in establishments such as pubs and cafes. Barrel pianos were popular with street musicians, who sought novel instruments that were also highly portable. They are frequently confused with barrel organs, but are quite different instruments.