There may be other people who tried to create devices to play music, but all the sources I found give the credit to Antoine Favre in 1796.
Favre was a Swiss watch maker in Geneva who was inspired by the carillon bell towers of Europe. These instruments consisting of numerous bells attached to levers, wires, pedals, and hammers had evolved over the centuries from bells for warning to musical instruments found in churches and town squares.
Favre sought to invent a way for those sounds to be reproduced in a smaller form. He utilized the watch’s mechanisms and replaced the bells with steel combs consisting of numerous teeth in varying shapes and lengths so that a different note was produced each time a tooth was plucked by tiny pins set into a revolving cylinder. He even inserted tiny drums and bells in some of his creations!
Naturally, since he dealt with small objects, he placed his ‘musical comb’ into pocket watches, perfume bottles, cane heads, pendants, snuff boxes, powder cases, and so on. The desire was to allow people to carry the treasure on their person to be shared and enjoyed anywhere. These original miniature marvels are extremely rare now, but a few examples remain, as I have shown here. The round one is a viniagrette from 1810, and the square one is a gentleman’s snuff box made into a music box.
It was not long until the idea was expanded upon both into larger items and self contained boxes, but also the technology to enhance the musical range. The desire to recreate more complex tunes led to the creation of multiple cylinders and much larger cases to house them in. Gradually, over the first decades of the 19th century, the musical box became an instrument all its own, beautifully designed in elaborate cases that were a centerpiece in parlors everywhere. Whole orchestral effects and classical compositions were made possible. The boxes themselves were decorated with spinning ceramic dancers, jeweled inlays, lush fabrics, exotic woods, and more. The smaller, carrying type musical boxes went out of style, although they were produced here and there as novelty items.
In 1885 Paul Lochmann of Leipsig invented the metal disc and it would revolutionize the industry as it was cheaper and easier to make. It replaced the cylinder although it seems from what I read that the music produced by the disc was never as crisp and pure as that from the cylinder. Whatever the case, the advances in music reproduction from other instruments, such as the phonograph and player pianos, caused a decline in grand music box production. In a complete to the circle, the smaller wind up boxes that we are all familiar with – What girl did not have a ballerina jewelry box? – once again became the norm and are all that remain today.
An interesting historical note is that a German named Brachhausen left his German music box firm and opened a shop in Rahway, NJ called the Regina Music Box Company. Later, when the musical box industry collapsed at the advent of World War I, Regina diversified into vacuum cleaners, which are still made today! There are several sources for further reading. Rather than add a list here, just do what I did: Type in ‘history musical box’ into a Google or Yahoo search!
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