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The Music Box - A Brief History
( Article orginally published August 1957 )
As far back as history goes, man has been inspired by music. Most men who hungered for music could not produce it and had to be entertained by others. The music box was the first automatic musical instrument that could be bought and enjoyed in the home.
Its commercial and mechanical development extended over about 100 years. The phonograph was invented in 1877 by Edison, but it took until about 1910 for the phonograph to entirely supersede the music box.There were certain insurmountable limitations in the manufacture of the music box that caused it to be replaced by the phonograph. The phonograph still exists in the present form of the record player. The radio had taken the place of the phonograph, just as the television has largely replaced the radio.
The beautiful tone of the - music box has never been copied by any other instrument. The great expense of manufacturing the music box has caused the production of the larger sized ones to cease entirely. This involved, the making of the steel comb and the cylinder. Although many attempts were made to put in the pins by machinery, none were commercially successful. The small music boxes of today are pinned entirely by hand. A large music box cylinder of six or eight tunes cost from about $25.00 to $200.00 in 1900, but a phonograph record costs from perhaps a dollar up today. It reproduces singing, instrumental music or speech.
The first automatic music was the carillon of bells. These were played by a spiked wooden cylinder, which operated the hammers up in the tower by pulling wires. Also there were small pipe organs, operated, by a water wheel which turned the drum, and pumped the bellows which furnished the air in the 16th century. In both of these applications the spikes in the cylinder were removable and could be placed in different positions to play different tunes. The music of the carillons was changed several times a year.
The origin of the music box was never recorded historically. It first came from Switzerland about 1740.
Switzerland is a country devoid of natural resources, not even coal. Consequently, the people have to depend on their ingenuity to avoid poverty.
For that reason, they manufacture small wares that require little material; such as, watches, lace, scientific instruments, but much skilled labor. Also the tourist trade is a large contributor to their national economy.
The first music boxes had five tiny bells. They were driven by watch mechanism. These were in the heads of canes, scent bottles, finger rings, etc.
Next the steel tongues were made individually. Each one being fastened down with a screw. The music was pinned on a !brass disc about the size of a quarter.
These mechanisms were a part of a large pocket watch and also a snuff box. Of course, there were other applications. These were entireily handmade by individuals and were only toys of the rich. This was about 1770, in and around Geneva.
About 1802, the cylinder was invented and the tongues were made in groups of five and fashioned into a comb. It was now possible to produce the most complicated tunes. It was then that the real music box began to be made. At first the cylinders were one to two inches long and played two tunes. The cases were of tin or gutta percha. The possibility of a world market was realized and organized manufacture began about 1810. Competition inspired improvements. The music box was divorced from the watch, and the industry was soon subdivided into spring makers, wheel makers, comb cutters, cylinder makers, and finishers or assemblers. The cases were made separately. About 1833 the large sized music box appeared with a cylinder about 5" long and an inch and a quarter in diameter playing four tunes.
While a manufacturing industry was progressing in Geneva, a home industry was started in Ste. Croix, in the Jura Mountains, and soon gave competition to the factories in the big city. After the music box works had been brought to a place where they would play two or three tunes, the tendency was to (make snuff boxes, sealing wax cases, sewing or needlework outfits, and head scratchers, (which were used :because of the wearing of wigs, at that time, irritating the scalp). There were musical alarm clocks and chiming clocks, and automatons like a lady seated and playing on a spinet or harp. Other applications included the revolving Christmas tree stand, and even the organ grinder.
By 1820 the combs were made in one piece. It was quite an art to make the comb of special alloyed steel, and to temper all of the teeth evenly. The steel had to be of a spring temper, yet soft enoough to tune the comb by filing. The music was set up by musicians. They would time the revolution of the cylinder. Then they would select the dominating theme from the air and transpose the score and adopt it to terminate with a finale when the cylinder completed its revolution. It would then shift over a little and present another set of pins, playing the next tune.
An ingenious machine like a typewriter was made with which the music was pricked onto the revolving cylinder. This was the most exacting and important part of the manufacture. The tune had to be arranged to fit the cylinder, and transposed to suit the compass of the comb. The correct commencement and ending of the tune had to be insured. Naturally, the higher paid musicians arranged the music for the best boxes.
The pricking of the cylinder made only small dents. These were afterwards drilled through and the pins inserted-by hand; usually by girls. There are about 1,500 pins in each tune on an 11 or 12" cylinder. So the preparation of the cylinder is quite a job. Warm cement like sealing wax was then run into the cylinder. Then it was spun in a lathe for about half an hour, to spread the cement evenly while cooling. This gave solidity to the cylinder. After cooling, the pins were all ground off even. The combs were tuned in different keys and the set up of each box was different.
The style of the cases were developed from perfectly plain ones to elaborately inlaid ones, using rare Oriental woods, such as rose wood, burl walnut, tulip and satin wood. Orchestral effects were added to the music; such as bells, organ notes, similar to an accordion, with a bellows pumped by the mechanism. Drums and castanets were added but were a doubtful addition to the music of the comb. Then about 1850, interchangeable cylinders appeared and a catalog of the obtainable cylinders accompanied these boxes.
The size of music boxes increased until cylinders of 26" length and large diameter could be had, and with combs of three or four hundred teeth. The standard classics in music were usually selected, and this music endures today. There were hymns, arias, overtures, waltzes and other dance music.
About 1885, Paul Lochmann of Leipsig, introduced the disc music box which was to revolutionize the industry. The discs were made of sheet steel with lugs punched in them to operate star wheels, which plucked the teeth. This industry came to this country. Yankee ingenuity took hold and the manufacture developed until 10 discs of a number were punched out at a time. The price of the discs were as low as 65¢ each, about 1900. The cylinder box was no competition to this and the Swiss factories, after several attempts to compete, went into bankruptcy, one after another. However, the disc box was never a match for the cylinder box, in tone or composition. The thin steel or zinc disc would not produce the tone that the solid cylinder did.
Today, the first and largest of the factories, Paillard & Co., still exists, making typewriters, cameras, sound recorders, etc. There are several factories still making small music boxes, with cylinders up to three and a half or four inches in length, and not more than four tunes. The smaller ones are put into jewel boxes, powder boxes, Teddy bears, etc., but there is no present evidence Of any revival of the large music box.
Floor polishers are now made in the Regina factory in New Jersey.
There have been three books written on the subject. One was written by Mosoriak and published by HOBBIES; one by John Clark, a practical music box repairman in England, and one by Alfred Chapuis, a Swiss Professor of Mechanics. The latter book is in French.
A Musical Box Society was formed eight years ago in this country, which has a present membership of about two hundred. A yearly meeting is held at the home of one member or another, Antique dealers and collectors are eagerly watching for music boxes to appear at sales. Ones in good condition are commanding prices about like those originally paid. There are very few who can repair and restore music boxes today. The music of the few remaining good music boxes is being transcribed onto discs to be played on a record player.