Mechanical Music Makers

July 16, 1999 - September 26, 1999

The cheerful tinkle of a music box, the determined plonk of a honky-tonk piano, the scratchy drone of a gramophone:  These sounds of a bygone era are easily imagined today, even though the memories of the molodies that they played is muted by time.  They were once examples of "cutting edge" technology, a triumph of the inventor's sweat and ingenuity, and a delight for an expectant public.

The mechanical music market was a highly competetive business, with success or failure measured by tiny improvements in acoustical quality or by the ability to devise new uses for existing machines.  People delighted in each new musical device, and the appeal of that music still endures.

Exhibit Companion

Beginnings : 1700 - 1850

Like many stories about the American Heritage, the story of music boxes begins in Europe over 200 years ago. There, on the western slopes of the Alps, Swiss watchmakers began fashioning little devices to add to the fancy pocket watches and snuff boxes commissioned by their wealthy patrons. Althtough the technology of pinned metal cylinders was not new, Swiss artisans miniaturized the cylinders, making them fit into hand sized cases along with a small, tuned comb. The cylinder and comb together produced a distinctively clear, pure tone as the pins displaced and then released the teeth of the comb.

For a century, artisans tinkered with the expensive devices, attempting to improve musical quality by minimizing the sound of the gears that turned the cylinder.  Finally, in the Nineteenth Century, watchmakers realized that many people, not just the wealthy, wanted to buy the little machines, even if the sound was not yet perfect.  Increasingly, they abandoned watches and turned exclusively to producing music boxes.

To understand the novelty and wonder of these boxes to people of the 1800s, we must imagine a world without radio, television, or the Walkman; a world where the most common sounds were church bells, horses hooves, and the occaisional clamor of a horse-drawn streetcar.  Unless you were a trained musician who could build or afford to buy an instrument, you probably heard instrumental music only rarely.  Suddenly, with inventions like the music box, hurdy-gurdy, player pianos and organs, the music was there whenever you wished to hear it, for as long as you wished to hear it.

Music for the people:  1850 - 1890

After 1850, factories began to mass produce musical instruments that were nationally and internationally marketed through department stores and catalogs.  But the demands of factory production changed the technology.  cylinders took great musical skill to pin properly in the correct, properly timed sequence of notes.  The flat disc, which was easier to reproduce, began to replace cylinders in the 1890s.

In a similar way, the popular player piano replaced the reed organ in the United States.  Utilizing cases built for standard pianos and installing new inner assemblies from local pneumatic works, player piano factories began to pop up all along the Great Lakes industrial corridor.  Once the "hardware" was purchased, the customer than needed a steady supply of "software": Paper rolls perforated in a pattern that enabled the mechanism to wheeze or jangle out popular tunes.

The rise of the factory helped America compete with Europeans in the music machine market. Unable to match the exquisite workmanship of the Swiss boxws, the Americans went on to admirably compete in the production and sale of disc boxes, automatic pianos, finally gaining undisputed dominance in phonograph production.

The Phonograph: Recording Life, 1890 - 1930

The phonograph that Thomas Edison invented in 1877 was both the culmination of the musical machine and the reason why music machines fell out of popular favor in the Twentieth Century. The piano roll and music box disc could reproduce a tune, sometimes many tunes, on one instrument. Even though the sound was sometimes scratchy and distant, the phonograph played back a recording of life: All the musicians with all of their instruments just as they played.  Not only could we now summon music at will, but the guns of the Spanish American War, or the voice of the great Caruso, or the words of Theodore Roosevelt.

By the 1920s, the phonograph, now often paired with a radio in one gleaming console, had become as common an appliance as a refrigerator.  The music box became a quant machine that sat rarely used, gathering dust on grandmother's mantle.  Soon only those with extra leisure time and money would collect them.

So the musical box had come full circle, from a plaything of the rich, to a comfort and delight of the masses, to a charming antique suitable for collectors.  Still, no other instrument can exactly match it.  As one of those collectors, Ralph Heinz, tells us, "A music box makes a magic sound.  The quality ones don't mimic any other instrument, and once you have heard one, you never forget."

Our Special Thanks

The Museum is indebted to many individuals and institutions for this exhibit. We commend and thank in particular:

Ralph Heinz, George Jensen, Frank Livermore, Gene Thomas and Bill Wehrend for loaning the artifacts displayed in this exhibit.

Thanks also to Sue Beaver, Bob Bond, Theodora Nelson, Kim Pack, Beryl Self, Bob Wersted and, especially, Bill Wehrend for planning and installing this exhibit.

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This page last updated October 3, 2000
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