Mechanical Music Through the Ages

A collection of Mechanical Music and Arcade Machines – highlighting examples of the development in mechanical entertainment over time.

Disc Music Boxes/Kalliope

The music boxes could have any size from that of a hat box to a large piece of furniture, but most were tabletop specimens. They were usually powered by clockwork and originally produced by artisan watchmakers. For most of the 19th century, the bulk of music box production was concentrated in Switzerland, building upon a strong watchmaking tradition. The first music box factory was opened there in 1815 by Jérémie Recordon and Samuel Junod. There were also a few manufacturers in Bohemia and Germany. By the end of the 19th century, some of the European makers had opened factories in the United States.

The cylinders were normally made of metal and powered by a spring. In some of the costlier models, the cylinders could be removed to change melodies, thanks to an invention by Paillard in 1862. In some exceptional models, there were four springs, to provide continuous play for up to three hours.

The very first boxes at the end of the 18th century made use of metal disks. The changeover to cylinders seems to have been completed after the Napoleonic wars. In the last decades of the 19th century, however, mass-produced models such as the Polyphon and others all made use of interchangeable metal disks instead of cylinders. Some had also used large paper rolls as well. The cylinder-based machines rapidly became a minority.
There were many variations of large music machines, usually built for the affluent of the pre-phonograph 19th century. Some were called the Symphonion, others were called the Concert Regina Music Box machine. Both variations were as tall as a grandfather clock and both used interchangeable large disks to play different sets of tunes. Both were spring-wound and driven and both had a bell-like sound. These large versions also came with autochanger mechanisms which allowed you to select one of up to 10 discs, which once played, were returned to their holder in the disc cradle. The technology and ingenuity of the time was magnificent and clearly a period of great advances.

At the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, most music boxes were gradually replaced by player pianos, which were louder and more versatile and melodious, when kept tuned, and by the smaller gramophones which had the advantage of playing back voices.