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    

Lrg Antique 19thc Swiss-made 8-tune Cylinder Music Box American Songs & BellsAntique Early 20thc German Automaton Singing Bird & Cage Mechanical Music Box NrVintage Reuge Swiss Music Box ~ 3 Tunes - 72 Notes ~ Wood & Beveled Glass CaseSwiss Antique Cylinder Music Box Playing 6 British Airs19thc Antique The Gem Roller Organ Hand Crank Victorian Music Box + 13 Music CogVintage Early Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer Raylite Night Light Music Box LampReuge 72 Note Music Box Plays 3 Classics Beautifully Sainte-croix SwitzerlandGrandfather Clock Or Music Box Bell Rack With 15 BellsAntique Junghans German Miniature Alarm Clock Music Box €Rare Antique Music Box 4 1/2" Disk Record Player Wood Thorens Regina VintageLarge Antique Swiss 8 Tune Zither Cylinder Music Box By George Baker Troll & CoVintage Reuge Music Box -glass & Pewter Case -amazing Sound -hungarian RhapsodyVintage Reuge Music Box -walnut Case - 3 Songs - Not WorkingOld Vintage Antique German Carved Whistler Karl Griesbaum Automaton Bb Music BoxLate Victorian Music Box, 62 Notes, 4 Aires Mozart Weber Strauss LubitskyVintage 90s 1997 Anastasia Trinket Jewelry Russian Egg Music Box - Works!2014 Canada 75th Ann.of The Royal Winnipeg Ballet - $20 Silver Coin In Music BoxOld Mantel Clock In Wood Anf Friezes In Metal With Carillon Music BoxThorens Ad-30 Vintage Musicbox 19 Discs Wooden Case Swiss Music Box Movement NrCharming Vintage Swiss Reuge Music Box Alarm Clock - Dream Of WaltzSteinbach PrSorrento Floral Inlay Reuge Scalloped Music Box - Music Box Attic Reg $1750Mr Christmas Nutcracker Suite Music Box Ballet Animated Musical Display Org BoxVery Rare Betty Boop Music Box The Danbury MintReuge Music Box 3 Song 72 Note In Beautiful Working ConditionLate 1800’s Cylinder Music Box, Probably Swiss.10 Tunes, Plays Well, Sounds GoodAntique Reuge Music Box Tissot Angelus Watch Co Musical Alarm Clock 8 Day SwissEaster Egg With Horse Carousel Trinket Box By Keren Kopal Music BoxHalcyon Days Enamel Limited Edition Music Box -- Johann Strauss -- Blue DanubeAntique Automaton Stand With Motor & Music Box Part~marked Swiss & SwitzerlandVintage Nowell Mold Ceramic Christmas Flocked Tree Music Box 14" LightedElegant Reuge Music Box Switzerland RachmaninovVintage Atlantic Mold Ceramic Christmas Tree Electric Light Huge 24" T Music BoxPeanuts Schmid Musical Music Box Younger Than Spring Time #285 Snoopy WoodstockVintage Reuge Music Box- Works Well - Box Has Some Damage "as Is"30 Mortier Flute 8 Dance Fair Band Organ Music Box PipesMr Christmas Worlds Fair Parachute Ride Christmas Figurine Music BoxWizard Of Oz Hour Glass Bythe Music Box Company Of San Francisco SnowglobeLot Of 16 Kalliope Discs 13” 34cm For Antique Music Box No Rsrv 2 Christmas SongFenton Ruby Red Glass Christmas Holiday Tree 6 " Tall W/ Wood Music Box Stand Vintage Boutique Szalasi Piano Music Box Germany Baby Rocker Lot Doll House Fitz & Floyd Musical Santa Mobile Vintage Car Music Box We Wish Merry ChristmasAntique Or Reproduction Head Marotte- Wind Up Music Box, Lovely Decorate Stick1995 Andy Warhol Mickey Mouse Music Box Disney # 275Curious George Jack In The Box Pop Up Music Box 1966 Schmid Peanuts Snoopy With Balloons Music Box Ceramic #412Phantom Of The Opera Music Box Journey To The Phantoms Lair Sf Music Box CompanyHuge Lot Of Christmas Village Decorations People Trees Buildings Music Box +San Francisco Music Box Company "gone With The Wind Rhett Embracing Scarlett"Thorens Ad30 Music Box Discs: 9 Different Titles! Great Collection!Mr Christmas Musical Bell Symphonium Music Box + 16 Disks,cloth Disk Bag,adaptorEaster Egg With Horse Carousel Trinket Box By Keren Kopal Music BoxFisher-price Music Box Record Player 995 (1971) Nice Bright Lithos - 5 RecordsReuge Music BoxVintage Kaleidoscope Wood & Brass Wind Up Music Box Desk TopLot Of 4 Antique Criterion & Regina Music Box 15 1/2" DiscsBradford Exchange 82610 Thomas Kinkade Holiday Reflections Crystal Music BoxVintage Spincraft Christmas Tree Music Box StandVintage Bottle Brush Tree Spins Music Box Pink W/original Mercury Glass GarlandLarge Easter Egg With Horse Carousel Trinket Box By Keren Kopal Music Box