These days, at the touch of a button, we are so used to hearing any type of music, reproduced with amazing fidelity, that it is hard to imagine what it must have been like before the days of radio, television and hi-fi. A hundred or so years ago most people never heard an orchestra, concert pianist, or opera singer during their whole lifetime. The village band, the church choir, or perhaps a trip to a musical hall would form the total of the average person's contact with the world
For a period of about fifty years, until the advent of radio, electronic recording techniques and 'talking pictures' in the late 1920s, automatic musical instruments were produced in huge numbers and they reached fantastic levels of sophistication.
Although various types of automatic Pipe Organ were first described around 100 B.C. and were mentioned throughout history, the first type of automatic musical instrument to be produced in any quantity was the Musical Box. They are still being made today! Originally appearing at the close of the eighteenth century, the first musical boxes were tiny devices, often hidden inside pocket watches and snuff boxes.
Whereas the cylinder musical box industry was created in Switzerland, the disc musical box originated in Germany. The terrific advantage of these machines was that a comprehensive library of the interchangeable disks could be gradually assembled by the delighted owner.
To the manufacturer, the advantage was that once the master disk had been produced, production copies of that disk could be stamped out relatively quickly and cheaply, according to demand. Before the final demise of the industry just prior to the 1914 - 1918 War, beautiful examples with automatic disk selection mechanisms were produced. Although disks were produced up to 1916 when the metal shortage caused by the war stopped production.
A problem common to both cylinder and disk musical boxes was the fact that the tunes had to be carefully arranged to fit exactly into one revolution of the mechanism and could last a maximum of only a minute or so. These difficulties were overcome with the advent of the paper music roll in the late 1880s.
During the last decade of the nineteenth century, many different styles of organette were produced. These small, table top instruments were operated by a hand crank which pumped the bellows supplying wind pressure (or suction) to a set of organ reeds. Being relatively inexpensive, these organettes were very popular and were produced in thousands. Those manufactured in America were usually fitted with small wooden pinned barrels (called roller organs) or a paper music roll, as opposed to the cardboard 'book' or disk of their German counterparts.
The Celestina is a typical example from the U.S.A. and was manufactured by the 'Mechanical Organette Company' a forerunner of the world wide Æolian Company which was responsible for the 'Pianola' and other grand instruments of the twentieth century.
Click here to download and play Wiener Blut by Strauss played on a Regina Musical Box. Available from the Museum Shop on the cassette "Out of The Attic".
During the nineteenth century, the intricate mechanisms became larger, and more complicated, with the addition of bells, drums and even miniature organs. The music 'programme' consisted of a metal cylinder, carefully marked and fitted with thousands of tiny pins, each of which plucked one of the tuned steel 'teeth' at the correct moment. The difficulties of producing these cylinders (each had to be individually made) and the limitations of the small number of tunes that could be fitted onto one cylinder led to the development of the musical disc box during the 1890s.