About Automatic Music Instruments Generally

Automatic, or self-playing, musical instruments date back close to 300 B.C. in Europe, when the pipe organ was invented. Shortly after the organ's inception, it was discovered that some of these instruments could be adapted to actually play by themselves by mechanical means. There are no detailed descriptions of these very early machines. There are some descriptions that date from the Middle Ages that deal with automatically-played organs. One example from the 1100's describes an organ that existed in the 10th century in France that had a "barrel" system which enabled the instrument to play by itself. This pinned barrel system was eventually to be used more and more in various types of instruments over the next several centuries. In the Middle Ages in Europe, barrel operated carillons made their debut. By the 15th c entury, a number of church organs were being built with barrel systems in them. Beginning in the 1600's, large residence organs with barrel systems were made for the royalty as well as the very wealthy. All these instruments were either weight driven or water driven.

The portable hand-cranked barrel organ, or"monkey organ" was used in the streets of Europe beginning in the 18th century. These instruments were played by "organ grinders" for the entertainment of the public both in Europe and eventually in America and elsewhere. Also, barrel operated street pianos were very popular in the 1800's and early 1900's. The organ grinders were providing entertainment up until at least the 1930's and 40's, when, for certain reasons, they gradually disappeared from the scene as main sources of musical entertainment.

Small chamber barrel organs, softly voiced for residence use, were also popular in the 1700's and 1800's. England was one of the main centers of the manufacture of these types of instruments. Some of these had real percussion instruments installed in them.

The cylinder music box was invented in Switzerland in 1796 by a swiss watchmaker. From then on till about 1920, music boxes were a very popular domestic form of entertainment. The disc type music box, using interchangeble discs, was invented in the 1880's and was popular until about 1920. In America, the Regina Company, later known for its vaccuum cleaners, was the main maker of American disc boxes.

In the late 1700's, pipe organ orchestrions, or automatic orchestras, were developed, at first for private use, and then for the general public. These first used the barrel system, and then in the very late 1800's, the perforated paper roll system. Piano orchestrions(or "nickelodeons"), made their debut in the late 1800's, and were used in public places until the 1930's.

Beginning in the middle 1800's fairground organs were developed for use with fairs, carousels, and other similar uses. The Gavioli company of Paris was the first to manufacture these types of music machines. The calliope, developed in America, also made its debut at this time. The American version of fairground organs, the band organs, also were used on carousels and in other public places in North America. Large versions of the fairground organs, the dance organs, were very popular in dance halls in Belgium in the early 1900's.

Small table top hand cranked reed organs called organettes were used from the 1870's till about 1930. Out of these developed the player reed organ, which was popular until the debut of the player piano in the 1890's. From 1900 to about 1930, about two and a half million player pianos were made in the USA. The reproducing piano was a cousin to the player piano. These astonishing instruments could reproduce faithfully the pieces performed by famous pianists of the day.

Last, but not least, some residence pipe organs and theater organs in the early 1900's were equipped with roll-playing mechanisms as well.

So what happened to the mechanical music industry? By the late 1920's, the phonograph was being improved, and the radio was becoming quite popular. The final blow was the start of the Depression. All these signaled the end of the automatic musical instrument industry. Many of the large instruments were destroyed when their usefulness ended; others perished in fires, floods, and other disasters. Any large machines that survive today were probably originally put in storage until discovered by a collector. Smaller instruments were stored in places such as attics and basements.

As early as the 1940's, some people began to search for these music machines of yesteryear. More and more people up through the 1950's and 60's began to collect these instruments. Some started their own private collections, while others opened up museums filled with these wonderful relics of yesteryear. Today several thousand people are very much into the hobby of mechanical music, and there are several organizations all over the world that are dedicated to these music machines. One group, the Musical Box Society International, is one of the largest mechanical music organizations. Check out their website at www.mbsi.org.

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