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    

Lg C1940 Erzgebirge Wendt Kuhn Christmas Angels On Moons Rotate Music Box 9.5" Antique Swiss Cylinder Music Box--plays Beautifully! Lights And Sounds Of Christmas - Controller Music BoxVtg Working German Wendt Kuhn Spring Time Flowers & Birds Erzgebirge Music BoxLecoultre Music Box Alarm ClockSmall Vintage Swiss Thoren Wood Music Box German Songs Ok Souvenirs Geneve NrReuge Sorrento Intarsio Inlaid Wood Octagonal Jewelry Trinket Vanity Music Box Vintage Thorens Music Box Engraved Art Switzerland Large +2 Disc Heigo Ho SilverDisney Music Box Anastasia 1997Gilded Jeweled Egg Shaped Music Box Ring Holder China Swan Lake TchaikovskyAntique C.1890 The Gem Roller Cob Organ Wood Music BoxMr. Christmas Limited Edition Animated Symphony Of Bells Music BoxMr. Christmas Limited Edition Animated Symphony Of Bells Music Box Ice SkatersAntique Drumming Monkey Automaton Hand Operated Crank Trade Stimulator Music BoxVintage 21" Holland Green Ceramic Flocked Lighted Christmas Tree With Music BoxReuge Sainte Croix Swiss Music Box Ch 3/72 187 Abc Moonlight Sonata 3 PartsMr. Christmas Symphonium Music Box With 10 Discs Silent Night Entertainer MoreGerman Steinbach Handmade Wooden Bird Keeper Music Box Incense Smoker 9.5" | J Vintage 1970's Fisher Price Music Box Record Player 5 Orig. Records Works #995Antique Cylinder Music Box With Beautiful Wood InlayAntique Bird In Cage Cuckoo Clock Black Forest Germany Vtg Automaton Music BoxVintage Schmid Peanuts Christmas Snoopy Woodstock Music Box 297 Japan RareVintage Tannenbaum Christmas Music Box Wood Tree Santa Angels Steinbach G.m.b.h.14 Thorens Discs For Ad 30 Automatic Music Box, With Original BoxesVintage Glolite Caroliers Christmas Display + Music Box & Noma Lamp Post W/ BoxReuge Music 1149 Sublime Harmonie 4-song Sainte-croixe Music Box - Used19th Century Swiss Nicole Freres Cylinder Music Box H80251950s Christmas Erzgebirge Germany Wendt Kuhn Wooden Angel Music BoxQueens Of The Stone Age - Pj Harvey Live At Music Box Ltd 25 Pic Disc Kuyss Lp Vintage Thorens Ad 30 Swiss Music Box With 30 Discs! Vintage Estate Reuge Inlay Music Box 4/50 4 Song Sound Of Music 50 NoteVintage Cuckoo Clock ~ Music Box & Dancers -parts Or Repair -works Sporadically Reuge Music Box Sainte Croix Switzerland Lara's Theme, Edelweiss 2/36Easter Egg With Horse Carousel Trinket Box By Keren Kopal Music BoxBeautiful Vintage Reuge Miniature Musicical Music Box W/ Key Chain - K3238Vintage Reuge Dancing Ballerina Music Box, "somewhere My Love" Franklin Mint Phantom Of The Opera Porcelain Dolls & Music Box Stand, Coa & BoxMr. Christmas Limited Edition Animated Symphony Of Bells Music Box Train FlawedEaster Egg With Horse Carousel Trinket Box By Keren Kopal Music BoxFamily Circle / Phoenix Reggae / Big L / Music Box / 7''/ VgReuge Music Box Vintage 144,1890 Antique Swiss Music Box Reuge Swiss Music Box - 4 Strauss SelectionsBoat Vintage Table Lighter 5 Lot Anchor Sternwheel Cigarette Nautical Music BoxThe Danbury Mint, Highly Collectible, Mint Condition, Peanuts Music BoxMr Christmas Gold Label Collection Grand Animated Train Light Electric Music BoxGerman Steinbach Wooden Handmade Incense Seller Music Box Incense Smoker 9" | J Beautiful Vintage Thorens Music Box Plays 3 Songs Made In SwitzerlandErzgebirge Wendt Kuhn German Music Box "angels Around Cradle" Silent NightSymphony Of Bells, Grand Concertina Music Box Of 50 Songs Classic And ChristmasMusic Box Frozen Snow Globe "let It Go" Elsa Anna Olaf Factory Sealed Hard Find!Antique Thorens Disc Music Box 1930's 40s W 5 Discs For Parts Or RepairDisney Little Mermaid Ariel Music Box "kiss The Girl" Jewelry Box 1988Mr. Christmas Music BoxMr Christmas Holiday Symphonium Music Box With Disks And BoxVintage Reuge Victorian Sleep In Heavenly Peace Detailed Music Box Picture FrameMr. Christmas Animated Music Box Plays Deck The Halls, Merry Go Round1893 15 1/2" Vintage Regina Music Box Disc - 1016 The Blue Danube Walts StraussEberling & Reuss Animated Music Box Joan Walsh Anglund Christmas Tree 1983 JapanMecki Original Peter Animated Hedgehog Steiff? Music Box No Reserve