Before the iPod, Walkman, turntable, or phonograph there was the music box. Though it's hard to imagine it now, the music box was actually an important first step on the road to the miniaturization of sound. Prior to the music box, non-performed music was produced by large and bulky contraptions using bells or chimes. The music box brought melodies into the home and, eventually, rings, medallions, and even perfume bottles. Music boxes were also hidden within table-top snuff containers inlaid with gold, pearls, and ivory.

The key to the music boxes' portability was a tuned steel comb, invented in 1796 by Antoine Favre in Switzerland’s clock-making region, La Vallée de Joux. The first steel combs were made from varying lengths of metal arranged in a curving fan-shape. As the pins on a rotating cylinder struck the teeth of the comb, notes were produced. Much like early musical clocks, these machines were spring-wound.

In 1810, David LeCoultre, of the famous LeCoultre watch-making family, designed a brass cylinder to play notes on a straight length of tuned steel teeth. Longer cylinders could be pinned for multiple tunes and adjusted laterally to switch between songs. A few years later, Francois Nicole, of the famous Nicole Frères firm, created a steel hairspring damper to soften the ring of each note, and the modern music box was born.

However, it wasn’t until 1875 that the first music box factory was opened by the Paillard company in St. Croix, Switzerland. Previously, all music boxes were produced through smaller cottage-industry operations using the skills of different craftspeople to assemble a complete product. These early musical contraptions were an expensive luxury item favored by the aristocracy, primarily playing hymns and operatic songs. Later versions added mechanical automata to their complex musical tunes for increasingly magical effects.

By the late 1800s, music boxes were built with removable cylinders whose tunes could be changed by replacing specially designed drawers. Finally, in 1885, Paul Lochmann created a music box called the “Symphonion” using a flat metal disc that rotated on a turntable. These metal discs could be easily swapped out, much like a vinyl record. Pop music was suddenly affordable and immediately accessible; within weeks of a Broadway show’s debut, its most memorable musical themes were available on music-box discs.

Gustave Brachhausen, foreman of the Lochmann firm, split with the company and created his own business manufacturing the “Polyphon,” perhaps the most famous disc-operated music box. In 1892, Brachhausen moved to the United States where he opened the Regina Music Box Company in Jersey City, New Jersey. Though Regina produced its own mechanical works, Brachhausen still imported discs from the Polyphon factory in Leipzig.

Regina’s immediate success allowed the company to move into a larger factory space and begin producing its own musical discs by hiring additional staff from the best companies of...

After Thomas Edison’s invention of the phonograph in 1877, music boxes eventually became obsolete due to competition with recorded music. Regina’s music box sales plummeted just after the turn of the century, and though the company attempted to diversify its manufacturing into other fields, by 1919 it was bankrupt. Most other major musical box producers were out of business by the early 1910s.

About our sources | Got something to add?

▼ Expand to read the full article ▼

Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)

Remember Eddie Cochran

Remember Eddie Cochran

Eddie Cochran died in 1960 at the age of 21, but his legacy lives on at Remember Eddie Cochran. The site pays tribu… [read review or visit site]

Fillmore and Avalon Collection

Fillmore and Avalon Collection

Wish you'd visited San Francisco in the late 1960s? Get a quick hit with this comprehensive collection of psychedel… [read review or visit site]

Hey babe, check out this database of over 2,900 Bob Dylan ticket stubs and concert posters, assembled with the help… [read review or visit site]

Most watched eBay auctions    

Large Antique 19thc French Victorian 12-airs 6-bell Cylinder Swiss Music Box, NrAntique French Mermod Freres Ideal Excelsior Interchangeable Cylinder Music BoxAntique 13" Cylinder Music Box Clock Work Mechanism 10 AirsLrg Antique Victorian Cylinder Triple-comb 8 Airs Music Box Inlaid Rosewood CaseReuge Sainte Croix Swiss Ch 3/72 #48824 Oak & Glass "memory" Music BoxAntique Olympia Music Box Hand CrankAntique Regina Wooden Oak Music Box 15.5" W/ Disc Sherman Clay & Co Single CombReuge Romance Ch 3/72 "the Phantom Of The Opera" Swiss Music BoxAntique Olympia Music Box Slide CrankWind Up Mechanical Singing Bird Cage Music Box Automation GermanySteinbach Nutcracker S1800 Uncle Sam Music Box Signed Limited EditionSteinbach Nutcracker S1696 The Swiss Man Music Box Signed Snoopy Peanuts Woodstock Ceramic Music Box With Movement, Schmid #383, RareDisney Princess Ariel Little Mermaid Disney Music Box. Tune: Under The SeaGone With The Wind Music Box With Dome Franklin Mint Lot Of 4 FourEarly 1900's Four-tune Cylinder Wind-up Music Box Made In Switzerland No.44-117Reuge Romance Music Box - Jewelry Box " Phantom Of The Opera" 6196Disney's Alice In Wonderland "all In The Golden Afternoon" Music Box RareAntique Victorian Celluloid Photo Album With Music Box And PhotosVtg Thorens Al236 2 Song Music Box Dixie Land & Coming Through The RyeRuege Grand Opera 5 Cylinder Franklin Mint Music BoxReuge Music Al Weber "phantom Of The Opera" 3-song Ch 3/72 Note Swiss Music BoxDisney's The Little Mermaid Ariel Flounder & Sebastian Snow Globe Music BoxAntique Symphonion Music Box Disks 15 With Original Carrying Storage Box2 Vtg Reuge Swiss Movement Wood Music Box Beethoven & Mozart Menuet Ex+ CondVintage 1971 Fisher Price Music Box Record Player W/ All 5 Records +1 DuplicateThorens Ad 30d Automatic Music Box - 31 Disks & No Reserve!!Beautiful Reuge Wood Music Box~plays Fur Elise~ Box Made In ItalyClinton Eight Day15 Jewel Clock With Cigarette Holder & Outstanding Music BoxVintage 1968 Snoopy Flying Ace Wood Music Box Japan#9p3141 Japan Anime Music Box Figure EvangelionWalt Disney Beauty And The Beast Figural Snow Globe Music BoxAntique 19th C. Swiss 3 1/2" Cylinder Music Box 6 Airs 13" Rosewood Case Runs ��Antique German Wind Up Bird Cage Music Box Automaton Automation 4 Parts/repairEnesco Coca Cola Music BoxVintage Pepsi-cola Music Box Lighter, Music Box Still Works!Wonderful Vntg Schmid Peanuts 1969 Snoopy Astronaut Music Box Figurine Hang Tag Disney Store Beauty And The Beast Jewelry Music Box Belle Rare Musical DancingEaster Egg With Horse Carousel Trinket Box By Keren Kopal Music Box 1997 San Francisco Music Box - Anastasia - Once Upon A DecemberVintage Thorens Music Box Movement Only Runs Good Swiss MadeCigarette Dispenser/music BoxWooden Steinbach Hohenhameln Marienberg Erzgebirge (?) Music Box BirdhouseVintage Clover Sankyo Keychain Pendant Personal Music Box Blue Etched Vine FaceVintage Fiber Optic Pink Flowers Electric Table Light Lamp With Music Box Antique Child Childrens Victorian Music Box Abc CherubsVintage 1960s Large Music Box Charm Bracelet Cobouchon StonesTotoro Spiral Spring Wooden Music Box Vintage Music Box Novelty Present GiftVtg. Canary "singing Lighter" Music Box Gold & Black Color Great CollectibleLarge German Black Forest Cuckoo Clock Carousel Music Box 27x17x14" For PartsEaster Egg Horse Carousel Trinket Box By Keren Kopal Music Box W/ CrystalVtg Steinbach Geschwister Wood Music Box Thorens Lang Lang Ist’s Her Irish Folk Vintage Lefton Wooden Revolving Kaleidoscope Music Box(650)Blue Inlaid Wooden Italian Music Box "return To Sorrento"Vintage Reuge Wall Mount Music Box: The Anniversary Waltz Nos, Blue Vintage Compacts Pillbox Powder Box Music Box Fifth Ave Clover Lot 5Vintage Wood Cat Kitten Dragonfly Trinket Trinket Jewelry Reuge Swiss Music BoxThe Phantom Of The Opera Music BoxSan Francisco Music Box Wizard Of OzVintage Music Box (plays I Could Have Danced All Night) (slight Damage) Oak?