A musical box (or music box) is a 19th century automatic musical instrument that produces sounds by the use of a set of pins placed on a revolving cylinder so as to strike the tuned teeth of a steel comb. They were developed from musical snuff-boxes of the 18th century, and called carillons à musique. Some of the more complex boxes also have a tiny drum and small bells, in addition to the metal comb. Alec Templeton, an avid collector of music boxes, and a professional concert musician, once noted that the tone of a musical box is unlike that of any musical instrument.
The original snuff boxes were tiny containers which could fit into a gentleman's waist coat pocket. The musical boxes could have any size from that of a hat box to a large piece of furniture. Most of them were table top specimens though. They were usually powered by clockwork and originally produced by artisan watchmakers.
For most of the 19th century the bulk of musical box production was concentrated in Switzerland, building upon a strong watchmaking tradition. The first musical box factory was opened there in 1815 by Jérémie Recordon and Samuel Junod. There were also a few manufacturers in Bohemia and Germany. By the end of the 19th century some of the European makers had opened factories in the United States.
The cylinders where normally made of metal and powered by a spring. In some of the costlier models, the cylinders could be removed to change melodies, thanks to an invention by Paillard in 1862, which was perfected by Metert, of Geneva in 1879. In some exceptional models there were four springs, to provide continuous play for up to three hours.
The very first boxes at the end of the 18th century made use of metal disks. The switch over to cylinders seems to have been complete after the Napoleonic wars. In the last decades of the 19th century however, mass produced models such as the Polyphon and others all made use of interchangeable metal disks instead of cylinders. The cylinder based machines rapidly became a minority.
The term "musical box" is also applied to clockwork devices where a removable metal disk or cylinder was used only in a "programming" function without producing the sounds directly by means of pins and a comb. Instead, the cylinder (or disk) worked by actuating bellows and levers which fed and opened pneumatic valves which activated a modified wind instrument or plucked the chords on a modified string instrument. Some devices could do both at the same time, and were often combinations of player pianos and musical boxes, such as the Orchestrion.
At the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th most musical boxes were gradually replaced by Player pianos, which were more versatile and loud, and also melodious, when kept tuned, and by the smaller gramophones which had the advantage of playing back voices. Series production rapidly disappeared and all the important companies closed their doors. A few of the original ones found new markets.
Cheap windup music box movements (including the cylinder and comb and the spring) continued to be produced in countries like Japan, and later on in other countries with low production costs, to give a bit of music to mass produced jewelry boxes and novelty items. These movements are also sold in retail outlets or by catalog for hobbyists who wish to make simple musical miniatures.
Surviving musical boxes from the 19th century and the early 20th century are prized by collectors and there is a more or less constant manufacturing of reproductions.
Coin operated music boxes
In Switzerland and the United States coin-operated music boxes, usually capable of playing several tunes, were installed in places like train stations and amusement parks. Some of the models had a mechanism for automatically changing the metal disks. These were, in an sense, the precursors to jukeboxes. However, since they produced music instead of playing back any sound, including human voices singing, they soon disappeared from their intended venues, displaced by the jukebox.
Because most of the coin-operated music boxes were built for rough treatment (such as typical slapping and kicking by a disgruntled customer) many of these large models have survived into the 21st century, despite their relatively low production quantities. They are eagerly sought by collectors who have the space for their large or very large cabinets.
Music Box Elements
- The bedpan is the relatively heavy metal foundation on which all the other pieces are fastened, usually by screws.
- The ratchet lever or the windup key is used to put the spring motor under tension, that is to wind it up.
- The spring motor or motors (2 or more can be used to make playing times longer) give anywhere from a few minutes to an hour or more of playing time.
- The comb is a flat piece of metal with dozens or even hundreds of tuned teeth of different lengths.
- The cylinder is the programming object, a metallic version of a punched card which , instead of having holes to express a program, is studded with tiny pins at the correct spacing to produce music by striking the teeth of the comb at the correct time. This function is payed by the disc in a disc music box.
- The disc is the programming object, a metallic version of a punched card which, like it has holes to express a program, star wheels which turn with the disc produce music by striking the teeth of the comb at the correct time. This function is played by the cylinder in a cylinder music box.
Evolving box production
Between the two world wars most of the swiss companies converted to the manufacture of other products requiring precise mechanical parts. Some went back to making watches, others were eventually responsible for the famous Bolex movie cameras and the Hermes typewriters.
Located near Lake Neuchâtel, Reuge is one of the last of the Swiss survivors making music boxes of all sizes and shapes, with or without automatons in imitation of past models of the previous centries or in a modern style with clear acrylic sides to see the mechanical operation. They have in a sense branched out widely from their original cylinder offerings since they now also offer traditional looking music boxes with removable metal disks for around a 1,000 Euros, with each disk costing in the neighborhood of 14 Euros. The higher range boxes with removable cylinders and small assorted tables made of fine woods can cost up to 34,000 Euros and about an equivalent number of US dollars. They also sell several models of clear acrylic paperweights with a musical box movement inside, for a minimum of about 45 Euros.
In Japan Sankyo Seiki still makes a wide variety of music boxes from tiny musical keychains to much larger models. It also supplies movements to many other manufacturers, or to clockmakers and clockmaker suppliers which sometimes sell them retail to hobbyists for as low as 3 Euros each. Sankyo Seiki bills itelf as the biggest manufacturer of music boxes in the world, and advertises that it controls 50% of the market. Recently, it has started selling licences for its music box tunes to cellular phone companies, for use as ring tones. The company is an industrial concern which also makes magnetic and hologram card readers, appliance components and miniature motors of all kinds.
The Porter Music Box company of Vermont produces steel disc music boxes in several formats. They offer clockwork, spring wound models as well as electric ones. They stand out by their continuing production of discs, with a selection of about a thousand tunes. The discs can also be played on many antique music boxes bearing the Polyphony and Regina brand names.
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