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    

Large Early Lever Wind Cylinder Music Box - Beautiful Sound - Very Rare - L@@kLarge Antique 19thc Victorian Hand Carved Oak Criterion, Disc Music Box, NrLarge Early Lever Wind 20 Airs Cylinder Music Box - Beautiful Sound - Very RareAntique Cylinder Music Box 1850?Antique Mechanical Automaton Wind Up Birdcage Singing Music Box Germany 2 BirdsMint 3 Tune Reuge Sainte Croix 372 Music Box Switzerland Beethoven 37216 SwissVintage Large Disc Music Box, ThorensVintage Reuge Sainte Croix Cylinder Music Box Wooden Swiss Clair De Lune DebussyThorens Music Box 6 Tunes Excellent Working OrderVintage Thorens Swiss Music Box For Parts Or RepairVintage Thorens Cylinder Walnut Case Music Box 3 Song Wants To Works NrAntique Vintage Victorian St Pauls Chimes Bells Music Box Instrument Keyboard Reuge Switzerland 2 Song / 50 Note Music Box Working Edelweiss Lara's Theme Vg++Music Box Copper Discs - Lot Of 6 - Porter/regina/polyphon - 15.5"Halcyon Days Enamels Music Box Limited Edition 750 #206 George Gershwin(#2237)Disney Store Collectors Club Series 5 Le Beauty And The Beast Watch Music BoxVintage Thorens Switzerland Music Box 50 Keys 4 Songs Antique 1920s-30s Melodie Charm By Beck Brass Cigarette Music Box, NrDanny Elfman & Tim Burton 25th Anniversary Music Box Set W/signed DvdsVintage Cuckoo Clock West German With Bird And Music BoxVintage Mirrored Disney Jewelry Trinket Music Box Anastasia Russian Egg 1997Anri Music Box Reuge Swiss Movement "holy Night Nativity" By E. Mussner Vintage Thorens Swiss 3 Tune Music Box W/36 Notes; 5 1/2"x 3 1/2"- For RepairVintage 1960’s Lorna Doll With Tammy Wedding Dress + Music Box Doll Case TrunkJosef Orginal Birthday Angels Ages 1 To 21 (16 Is Music Box)Grand Double Level Blue Stain Music Box With Floral Sorrento Inlay- Mba Reg $860Reuge Swiss Movement Music Box Made In Italy Floral Wood Inlay Ice CastlesThorens Ad 30 Vintage Walnut Disc Music Box And 41 DiscsVintage Two Birds In Metal Bird Cage Decorative Music Box West GermanyNeon Genesis Evangelion Music Box Figure Asuka Langley Japan Sega/g214-034Antique Regina Music Box - Beautiful57 Assorted Vintage Thorens Ad30 Automatic Music Box DiscsVintage Swiss Reuge Musical Music Box Keychain Ruby Red RhinestonesVintage Reuge Heart / Rhinestones Swiss Ste- Croix Music Box C.1960Snoopy Music Box Willitts Driving His CorvettAntique Wooden Music Box ( Box Only ) For Reuse / RestorationVintage Large Domed Music Box Couple Dancing 2 Songs Swiss Reuge "danseurs 1782"Erzgebirge Germany Wendt Kuhn Music Box Santa And Angels Procession TreesEaster Egg With Horse Carousel Trinket Box By Keren Kopal Music Box Faberge Anri Vintage Disney Cinderella Woodcarving Music Box 1971Tee Cup Trinket Box By Keren Kopal Music Box Faberge With CrystalsVtg Anri Carved Gilded Wood Madonna & Child Gold Icon Shrine Italian Music BoxLionel 6-26818 Operating Christmas Music Box Car Ln/boxVtg Mattel Jack In The Box Toy 50s 60s Clown, Pop Up Works - Music Box Usa MetalReuge Sainte Croix Swiss Wind Up Singing Bird Cage Music Box Ice Cream Music Box -with Speaker (no Reserve )Small Antique 4 1/2" Music Box Key Wind Plays "pretty As A Picture" Wood CaseMusic Box Copper Discs - Lot Of 5 - Porter/regina/polyphon - 15.5"Vintage German Erzgebirge Music BoxStuffed Build-a-bear 18 In Confetti Hello Kitty Sanrio + Outfit & Music BoxTrinket Box By Keren Kopal Music Box Faberge With CrystalsVintage Josef Original Music Box Lady In Yellow Gown On Sofa With Dog MusicalClock Repair Dvd Video - Repairing The Black Forest Cuckoo Clock With Music BoxLarge Faberge Enamel Egg On Base Flower Basket Turns Music Box Surprise NiceBedsure Piano Classical Music Box Dancing Ballerina Musical Toy Fot Kid Hot SaleVintage Cigarette Dispenser Holder Music Box Scotch Bottle Reuge Treasure Chest Music Box With 10 Metal DiscsRare Vintage Thorens Ad-30 Swiss Music Box W/ 6 Discs Easter Egg With Horse Carousel Trinket Box By Keren Kopal Music Box Faberge Snoopy Music Box Willitts Joe Surfer Woodstock