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    

Nice Clean Victorian French Wind Up Manivelle Music Box Children Playing 1840sAntique Cylinder Music BoxJaeger Le Coultre & Reuge Musical Swiss Clock Petite Neuchateloise Music Box1$ No Reserve Wk Sg Günthermann Gunthermann Tin Wind-up Crank Carousel Music BoxVintage Karl Griesbaum ? Mechanical Singing Bird Cage Automaton Music BoxRare Symphonion Simplex Antique Music Box Cylinder Mechanism W. 10 Metal DiscSwiss Jaeger Lecoultre Musical Eight Day Alarm Clock Model 2163 Reuge Music BoxC1970s Reuge 4 Tune Cylinder Music Box 50 Tooth Comb 3 7/8" Long Cylinder Reuge Sainte-croix Music Box See-through Plays Tchaikovsky NutcrackerTim Burton's Nightmare Before Christmas Jewelry Box Sally Musical [music Box]Vintage Steinbach Thorens Music Box Guten Abend Gute Nacht Beautiful Vintage Reuge 3 Tune Music Box Saint Croix SwitzerlandFine Thorens Music Box 3 Tunes Inlaid Wood Case ExcellentMusic Box Antique Painted Wall-hanging SwitzerlandJosette's Music Box- Dark Shadows2001 Mr. Christmas Musical Melodium Music Box With Dance & Roller DrumsPokemon Music Box Oyasumi Boku No Pikachu Goodnight, My PikachuWoof And Poof Halloween Witch Music BoxHtf Paramount Bubble Light Tree On Rotating Stand With Music BoxSuperb Gilt Silver & Enamel Faberge Egg W/music Box - Franklin Mint 150th AnnivVintage Reuge Dancing Couple Music Box. Plays Anniversary SongJazz 78 : Red Mckenzie And His Music Box On Okeh Electric 41071 In E ConditionEaster Egg Trinket Box By Keren Kopal Music Box W Austrian And Swarovski CrystalWood Falling Rain Chime Music BoxJosef Originals Christmas Music Box Plays Ave Marie LovelyAntique Swiss-made Rosewood Faux Grain, 10 Songs Cylinder Music Box, NrRare Disney Cinderella Music Box Princess 3d Jewelry Trinket Mr. Christmas Heirloom Symphonium Gold Label Music Box 24 Discs And InstructionsRare Disney Schmid Princess Jasmine Aladdin Music Box Ceramic Porcelain FigurineByers' Choice Caroler - Man With Monkey And Music Box - 2000Mccormick Musical Elvis Teddy Bear Whiskey Decanter 15" Tall Presley Music Box Phantom Of The Opera Music BoxSmall Music Box With Insert For Needlepoint Cross Stitch Or EmbroideryAmerican Girl Pleasant Company Christmas Music Box EucVintage German Made Cuckoo Clock With Music Box Parts Or Repair"music Box" 97435 Holiday Christmas Village Houseunpainted California CreationsLarge Junk Drawer Lot - Jewelry, Tins, Compacts, Spoons, Collectibles, Music BoxVintage 1971 Fisher Price Music Box Record Player With Five RecordsTiny Love My Nature Pals Mobile Musical Music Box Crib Night Light Cot Baby ToyDisney Villains Snow Globe Music Box W/box, No Reserve Free Ship To Lower 48! Antique -reuge Vintage Swiss Musical Alarm Clock Reuge Swiss Music Box Franklin Mint Elvis Blue Suede Shoes Music BoxVintage Pasadena Jewelry Silver/goldtone Metal Keychain Working Music BoxRare Enesco The Dream Keeper Music Box Deluxe Toy Cabinet Non Working For PartsVintage Radio Lite Wind Up Music Box Cigarette Lighter ~~ Plays Fur ElizePhantom Of The Opera Music Box Easter Egg With Horse Carousel Trinket Box By Keren Kopal Music Box Vintage 1971 Jack In The Music Box Clown Tested And WorkingLenox China Musical Beautiful Rose 10k Porcelain Jewelry Music Box Retails 129.0Easter Egg With Horse Carousel Trinket Box By Keren Kopal Music Box Gorgerous Circle In Gold Wind Up Music Box : You Are My Sunshine C1880 Swiss Cylinder Harp Zither Music Box 12 Airs - Extraordinary!Enesco Christmas Small World Of Music Box Mice On A Typewriter Multi Action 90'sEaster Egg With Horse Carousel Trinket Box By Keren Kopal Music Box Lt. BlueVintage Music Box Pendant, Unique Lot Of 15 Small Skeleton Open Barrel Cabinet Keys Fancy Jewelry Music Box KeyVintage Hand Carved Large Asian Jewelry Box Music Box "you Light Up My Life"Antique 19th C Century Black Forest Wood Carved Music Box 6 Songs 50 Note Key WdLot Of 20 Vintage Clock, Music Box Winding Knobs, Threaded, Sm And MedVintage Japan Sankyo Cameo Golden Jewelry ~ Trinket ~ Music Box Wind Up