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    

Reuge Swiss Bontems Singing Bird Automaton Gilded Cage Music Box No ReserveReuge "dauphine Style 72/note Music Box 3/song - Remarkable!!!Rare Vtg Reuge Swiss Cylinder 4 Tune Rose Wood Inlay Music Box Thorens Antique19th Century Antique Swiss Cylinder Music Box, 8 Songs Airs. Beautiful!Vintage Tin German "gunthermann" Clown Sitting On Music Box DrumAntique German Singing Bird Cage Bird Automaton Music BoxThorens 50 Note Music Box 4 Songs Brahms La Paloma Walzer Weinerwald SwitzerlandAntique Victorian 19th Century 4 Air Cylinder Music Box For Renovation ProjectAntique Singing Bird Cage Bird Automaton Music Box ~watch VideoAntique Cylinder Music Box ~ 10 Tunes With Tune CardVintage Erzgebirge Expertic Carousel Little Children Come Run To Me Music Box Antique Inlaid, 4 Bell, Mandarin Music Box, Runs WellBeautiful C. 1900 German Music Box With Double Singing Birds In CageVintage Thorens American Walnut Wood Music Box Swiss Movement - 20 Discs / WorksReuge Swiss Music Box Clair De Lune Blue Danube Anniversary Song Ch 3/72 - N/rThorens 2 Songs 2 Tune Cylinder Music Box Made In Switzerland Nice Wood As FoundW25 Two Cuckoo Clock Music Box Replacement MovementsEaster Egg With Horse Carousel Trinket Box By Keren Kopal Music BoxVintage Wood Inlay Upright Piano Music Box, 3 Songs, Made In SwitzerlandEaster Egg With Horse Carousel Trinket Box By Keren Kopal Music BoxFaberge Imperial Egg Porcelain & Sterling Silver Music Box Display Box Ltd # 237Beauty And The Beast Music Box W/ Spinning Belle #540Reuge Swiss Music Box The Sound Of Music 4 Tunes In Mahogany Case - No ReserveVintage 1971 Fisher Price Music Box Record Player With 5 Records Works! # 995Lot Of 17 Vintage Josef Originals Birthday Angels, Music Box Lady, Black Eyes!!!Enesco Musical Vintage Toy Cabinet The Dream Keeper Music Box "memory" ExcellentLot Of 17 Antique Regina 15.5" Disc Music Box Metal Discs Records DisksLarge Disney Snow Globe 3 Princess Castle Music Box 12" Rotates # 232Reuge Sainte Croix 2 Song Swiss Music Box Ch 2/50 Switzerland(g) Vtg 1984 Fiber Optic Color Changing Flower Motion Mood Lamp Light Music Box Rare Halcyon Days Enamels World Globe "the Planets" Music Box Gustav Holst Joan Rivers Imperial Treasures Faberge Music Box EggVintage Antique Switzerland Music Box 6 Airs Vintage Germany Chirping Bird Automaton Birdcage Music Box Greisbaum Style Josef Originals "mother Music Box" Plays Brams' "lullaby"Lot Of 6 Regina Music Box 20 3/4" Disc1984 Schmid Peanuts Snoopy Belle Woodstock Ice Skating Musical Music Symphony Of Bells Music Box Animated Lighted Carousel ScenePleasant Company American Samantha Christmas Nutcracker Doll Music Box DressVtg West Germany Regula Cuckoo Clock Chalet Animated Dancers Music Box 3 WeightsRare Harry Potter Snow Globe San Francisco Music Box Co. Harry Potter PrologueEnesco Bavarian Beer Garden W Train Cuckoo Clock Music Box Beer Barrel PolkaEaster Egg With Horse Carousel Trinket Box By Keren Kopal Music BoxEaster Egg With Horse Carousel Trinket Box By Keren Kopal Music BoxVintage French Heavy Brass 8-day Windup Clock W/alarm & Music Box By RemembranceHarry Potter Ravenclaw Crest Musical Waterglobe Hogwarts San Francisco Music BoxMusic Box Heart Pendant .925 By Reo. Theme From "love Story" Sterling Silver.1800's Antique Victorian Symphonion Brevete Patent Music BoxVintage "reuge" Italian Music Box, Works Beautifully, Beautiful Wood & Art WorkVintage Fred Zimbalist Enamel Painted Music Box Thorens 2/28 Notes Parts/repairVintage Gold Gilt Heart Shaped Ormolu Filigree Angel Footed Jewelry / Music BoxAntique Polyphon Music Box Working Condition With 14 Disks Antique Thorens Disc Music Box Ad30 Swiss Wooden Ca 1925-1940? With 15metal-diskW42 Two Cuckoo Clock Music Box Replacement MovementsDisassembled Vintage Cuckoo Clock -w/music Box. Blue Danube. Parts Or RepairEstate Find Vintage Antique Animated Dog Cigarette Dispenser Wooden Music Box Vintage Peter Germany Ballerina Dancer Alarm Clock Music Box For Parts Or RepairEaster Egg With Horse Carousel Trinket Box By Keren Kopal Music BoxVintage Boyd's Bear's And Friend"s Figurine...nurse Music BoxCapodimonte Cigarette Lipstick Dispenser Holder Music Box Motion Carousel Reuge