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    

Vintage German Ornate Gold Gilt Metal Singing Music Box Automaton Bird Cage SmsSmall Antique Thorens Swiss Switzerland Music Box W/ 13 Discs, Works20-3/4" Regina Style 28 Music Box With Disc CabinetAntique Victorian 8-tune Swiss Cylinder Music Box W/ Faux Grain Painted Case NrRare Wonderful World Of Disney 9” Snowglobe + Music Box In BoxExquisite Antique Palais Royal Antique D Lecoultre Music Box 1830s, With KeysRare Victorian Music Box In Photo Album Balmoral Castle With Surrounding Areas Fine Antique Karl Griesbaum Singing Bird In Cage Music Box Automaton See VideoSankyo Japan Inlaid Butterfly Moth Banded Burl Wood Jewelry Trinket Music Box NrVintage Reuge Sainte Croix 3/72 Thieving Magpie Cylinder Swiss Music BoxVtg Thorens Metal Disc Music Box W/ 11 Disc Working Vintage Anri Carved Wooden Music BoxParts Of Antique Automaton Music Box Bells Chinese Figures Moving Heads & Arms 1958 Popeye Mattel Jack In The Music Box Nice Working ConditionEarly Victorian 12 Airs Cylinder Music Box Enchanting Cithare Tremolo~marquetry Vintage Hummel Figurine Goebel German 4 3/4" Little Band #392 Music Box WorkingAtwater Kent Radio Model #555 (music Box)Antique Junghans German Carriage Clock With Music Box Alarm WorkingReuge Music Box Jewelry Box Paganini Floral Inlaid Parts/repair/decorativeSan Francisco Music Box Phantom Of The Opera Journey To The Lair Original BoxEstate Fresh Vintage Antique Ohio Art Tin Crank Music BoxVintage Wind Up With Two Singing Birds Cage Automaton Music Box West GermanyForma Vitrum Miller's Mill Stained Glass Lighted House/music Box S/n W/ Coa JobVintage Swiss Reuge Mechanical Wood Music Box 36 Note Dr. Shivago / Lara's ThemeSnoopy, Lucy & Charlie Brown Ceramic Music Box By SchmidVintage 1950's Poodle Bedroom Doll Music BoxVintage Thorens Music Box - Made In Switzerland - Very Nice!!Vintage Looping 8-day Music Box Mechanical Clock Switzerland Vintage German Erzgebirge Wedding Music Box Steinback Swiss Thorens Switzerland1950s Volkswagen Tin Music Box Toy Jewelry Box Wind Up Large Vw Toy Car UniqueSomewhere In Time - Grand Hotel Music BoxBeanie And Cecil The Seasick Sea Serpent Music Box Jack In The Box Mattel8 Vtg Music Box Movement Reuge France Swiss Thorens Sankyo Bols Ballerina Fuji++Swiss Edleweiss Music BoxRare, Beauty And The Beast, Dancing, Music BoxMi Hummel Little Band Figurine On Music Box Dr Zhivago 5" TallCute Baby Crib Mobile Bed Bell Holder Arm Bracket&wind-up Music BoxAdorable Gold Music Box Charm With Working Chime Tune 10kt Yg Note Pearl RubySnoopy & Woodstock & Friend Ceramic Music Box By WillittsVintage Italian R. Capodimonte Music Box Cigarette/lipstick HolderEaster Egg With Horse Carousel Trinket Box By Keren Kopal Music Box Faberge Easter Egg With Horse Carousel Trinket Box By Keren Kopal Music Box Easter Egg With Horse Carousel Trinket Box By Keren Kopal Music Box Mickey's Tree Trimming Party Disney Jim Shore Lighted Music Box 10 1/2" EnescoLot Of 10! 15.5 Inch Antique Regina Music Box Discs (polyphon/porter) VintageAntique Hand Cranked Manivelle - Children's Music Box Circa 1890'sVintage Reuge Automaton Music Box Dancing Couple Under Dome Works BeautifullyBoxed Royal Worcester Porcelain Millenium Music BoxEaster Egg With Horse Carousel Trinket Box By Keren Kopal Music Box Easter Egg With Horse Carousel Trinket Box By Keren Kopal Music Box Mr Christmas Music Box Lot Of 16 Disks4 Beatrix Potter Schmid Music Box Mrs. Tiggy Jemima Duck Tom Kitten Lady Mouse Swiss Reuge Romance Phantom Of The Opera Working Music Box No Reserve Easter Egg With Horse Carousel Trinket Box By Keren Kopal Music Box Nyjewel Gold Tone Vintage Music Box Compact Mirror 73x47x15mmHand Crank Musical Silver Plated Movements Parts Diy Music Box Swan LakeHand Crank Musical Silver Plated Movements Parts Diy Music Box CanonVintage 1971 Fisher Price Music Box-record Player #995 With 5 RecordsRotary Baby Mobile Crib Bed Toy Clockwork Movement Music Box Hook Songs HangerVintage Harpe- Zither 8 Tune Cylinder Music Box (650)