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    

Rare Antique Rosewood German Polyphon Disk Music Box Excellent ConditionVtg Thorens Gramophone Style Music Box Switzerland Brass Horn W/5 DiscsHunny Of A Day Winnie The Pooh 1st Issue Sunny Days Music Box, Disney, Kingsbury Vintage Pressed Steel Coupe W/ Music Box, Lights, And Wind Up Drive Stunning All Original 12" French Fg Morette W/bone Whistle Handle/music Box LrSailor Moon Star Locket Music Box Digital VersionOld Black Forest Carved Dog Hunter Tie Rack Music Box Estate Rare ItemVintage Reuge Music Box Clock Swiss Mechanical Running Playing Desk Alarm NrVintage 1930's Thorens Ad 30 Switzerland Discs Music Box No Reserve!Antique 1800's Victorian Rosewood Inlaid 6 Tune Cylinder Music Box All OriginalReuge Swiss Music Box 3 Parts The Phantom Of The Opera 3/72 Sainte-croix Vintage Reuge Mini Music Box PendantAntique 19th Century Swiss Wooden Music Box Plays Six Tunes Nice WorkingVintage Josef Originals Bride & Groom Music Box Cake Topper Figurine NrKitty Cucumber Witch W/pumpkin, Halloween Music Box Figurine,cat,schmidJec Music Box Cuckoo Clock 30 Hour German Black Forest No Reserve!!!!!!Easter Egg With Horse Carousel Trinket Box By Keren Kopal Music BoxArdleigh Elliot Chinese Export Enamel Cloisonne Dragon Jewelry Trinket Music BoxVintage 1971 Fisher Price Music Box Record Player With 8 Records #995 WorkingLot 10 Vintage Regina Music Box Disc 15 1/2" Metal Records Estate Fresh14k Gold Windup Music Box Charm Happy Birthday Melody Switzerland PendantThorens Pipe Organ Swiss Music Box W/angel & 6 Music Disc/original Box & InstHallmark Keepsake 2011 Fisher-price Music Box Teaching Clock OrnamentArdleigh Elliot Chinese Enamel Cloisonne Elephant Trinket Jewelry Music Box NrAntique Cylinder Inlaid Music Box NrHallmark Keepsake 2011 Fisher-price Music Box Teaching Clock OrnamentHot Anime Sailor Moon Star Locket Music Box Digital Version And Pocket Watch SetRare ~ Snoopy Peanuts ~ Ceramic Train Conductor Figure ~ Schmid Music Box ~1966Vintage 1966 Peanuts Snoopy Jack In The Music Box In Original Box(11) Regina 15 1/2" Music Box Discs, 11 Disk Lot, No ReserveLot 12 Vintage Regina Music Box Disc 15 1/2" Metal Records Estate Fresh Hallmark Keepsake 2011 Fisher-price Music Box Teaching Clock OrnamentVintage Faventia Barrel Piano Music Box Spain Extra Roll Rare Willitts Peanuts Playland Carousel Charlie Brown Horse Canopy Music BoxVtg Italian Reuge Swiss Cylinder Marquetry Inlai Wood Jewelry Music Box Dancer Nebraska Cornhusker Football Player Music BoxReed & Barton Silverplate Silverplated Teddy Bear Music Box Orig. BoxThorens Musicwork Music Box Movement Switz. Whiff SongKouvalias Musical Toy/music BoxRare Mary Poppins "feed The Birds" Music BoxLot Of 20 Vintage Little Open Barrel Skeleton Keys Music Box Jewelry Ship FreeItalian Wood Inlay Music Box With Key - Made In Italy - Slightly UsedEaster Egg With Horse Carousel Trinket Box By Keren Kopal Music BoxEmes Vintage/ Antique Mechanical Music Box Clock ~ Litho Style DetailingSchneeberger Smoker & Music Box + Smaller Smoker GermanThomas Kinkade I'll Be Home For Christmas Best Loved Christmas Carols Music BoxEaster Egg Trinket Box By Keren Kopal Music Box W Austrian And Swarovski CrystalFaberge Fountain Of Jewels Music Box Egg With Blue Enamel, Solid SterlingDisney Beauty And The Beast Music Box Belle 3d Musical Trinket Box Disney Cinderella Music Box Jewelry Box So This Is Love Princess 3d Round CircleFalling Rain Wooden Windless Chime Box Zen Music Box Serenity PeaceVtg Music Box "unforgettable" Sweet Pea Flower Fairies Cicely Mary BarkerVintage Japanese Hand Painted Abalone Jewellery Music Box,lock & Key,mirror.Vintage 1971 Snoopy Music Box Linus & Snoopy And Lucy & Snoopy Music Box PlaysEaster Egg Trinket Box By Keren Kopal Music Box W Austrian And Swarovski CrystalEaster Egg Trinket Box By Keren Kopal Music Box W Austrian And Swarovski CrystalFantastic Vintage Swiss Reuge Music Box Snuff-box Style 2/50 Classical SongsVintage Reuge Music Box Three Songs 50 NotesVintage Thorens Ad30 Disc Music Box W/ 8 Discs Parts Or Restore50th Anniversary Disney Alice In Wonderland Music Box Rare 1991