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A music box is a 19th century automatic musical instrument that produces sounds by the use of a set of pins placed on a revolving cylinder or disc so as to pluck the tuned teeth of a steel comb. They were developed from musical snuff boxes of the 18th century and called carillons à musique. Some of the more complex boxes also have a tiny drum and small bells, in addition to the metal comb. Note that the tone of a musical box is unlike that of any musical instrument (although it is best described as somewhere between the timbres of an mbira).
The original snuff boxes were tiny containers which could fit into a gentleman's waistcoat pocket. The musical boxes could have any size from that of a hat box to a large piece of furniture. Most of them were tabletop specimens though. They were usually powered by clockwork and originally produced by artisan watchmakers. For most of the 19th century, the bulk of musical box production was concentrated in Switzerland, building upon a strong watchmaking tradition. The first musical 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, which was perfected by Metert of Geneva in 1879. 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 switchover to cylinders seems to have been complete 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. The cylinder-based machines rapidly became a minority.The term "musical box" is also applied to clockwork devices where a removable metal disk or cylinder was used only in a "programming" function without producing the sounds directly by means of pins and a comb. Instead, the cylinder (or disk) worked by actuating bellows and levers which fed and opened pneumatic valves which activated a modified wind instrument or plucked the chords on a modified string instrument. Some devices could do both at the same time and were often combinations of player pianos and musical boxes, such as the Orchestrion.
At the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, most musical 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. Escalating labour costs increased the price and further reduced volume. Now modern automation is helping bring music box prices back down.
Collectors prize surviving musical boxes from the 19th century and the early 20th century as well as new music boxes being made today in several countries (see "Evolving Box Production", below). The cheap, small windup music box movements (including the cylinder and comb and the spring) to add a bit of music to mass-produced jewelry boxes and novelty items are now produced in countries with low labour costs.
Many kinds of musical box movements are available to the home craft person, locally or through online retailers.
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In Switzerland, coin-operated musical boxes, usually capable of playing several tunes, were installed in places such as train stations and amusement parks. Some of the models had a mechanism for automatically changing the metal disks. These were, in a sense, the precursors to jukebox. However, they soon disappeared from their intended venues and were displaced by the jukebox, which could produce a greater variety of sounds.
Because most of the coin-operated musical boxes were built for rough treatment (such as typical slapping and kicking by a disgruntled customer), many of these large models have survived into the 21st century, despite their relatively low production quantities. They are eagerly sought by collectors who have the space for their large or very large cabinets.
Thomas Alva Edison conceived the principle of recording and reproducing sound between May and July 1877 as a byproduct of his efforts to "play back" recorded telegraph messages and to automate speech sounds for transmission by telephone.He announced his invention of the first phonograph, a device for recording and replaying sound, on November 21, 1877, and he demonstrated the device for the first time on November 29 (it was patented on February 19, 1878 as US Patent 200,521). Edison's early phonographs recorded onto a tinfoil sheet phonograph cylinder using an up-down ("hill-and-dale") motion of the stylus. The tinfoil sheet was wrapped around a grooved cylinder, and the sound was recorded as indentations into the foil. Edison's early patents show that he also considered the idea that sound could be recorded as a spiral onto a disc, but Edison concentrated his efforts on cylinders, since the groove on the outside of a rotating cylinder provides a constant velocity to the stylus in the groove, which Edison considered more "scientifically correct". Edison's patent specified that the audio recording be embossed, and it was not until 1886 that vertically modulated engraved recordings using wax coated cylinders were patented by Chichester Bell and Charles Sumner Tainter. They named their version the Graphophone. Emile Berliner patented his Gramophone in 1887. The Gramophone involved a system of recording using a lateral (back and forth) movement of the stylus as it traced a spiral onto a zinc disc coated with a compound of beeswax in a solution of benzine. The zinc disc was immersed in a bath of chromic acid; this etched the groove into the disc where the stylus had removed the coating, after which the recording could be played.
In May 1889, the first "phonograph parlor" opened in San Francisco. Customers would sit at a desk where they could speak through a tube, and order a selection for one nickel. Through a separate tube connected to a cylinder phonograph in the room below, the selection would then be played. By the mid-1890s, most American cities had at least one phonograph parlor. Another common type of phonograph parlor featured a machine that would start or would be windable when a coin would be inserted. This jukebox-like phonograph was invented by Louis T. Glass and William S. Arnold. Many early machines were of the Edison Class M or Class E type. The Class M had a battery that would break if it fell or was smashed with another object. This would cause dangerous battery acid to spill everywhere. The Class E sold for a lower price and ran on 120V DC.
By 1890, record manufacturers had begun using a rudimentary duplication process to mass-produce their product. While the live performers recorded the master phonograph, up to ten tubes led to blank cylinders in other phonographs. Until this development, each record had to be custom-made. Before long, a more advanced pantograph-based process made it possible to simultaneously produce 90-150 copies of each record. However, as demand for certain records grew, popular artists still needed to re-record and re-re-record their songs. Reportedly, the medium's first major African-American star George Washington Johnson) literally thousands of times in a studio during his recording career. Sometimes he would sing "The Laughing Song" more than fifty times in a day, at twenty cents per rendition. (The average price of a single cylinder in the mid-1890s was about fifty cents.) was obliged to perform his “The Laughing Song” (or the separate "Laughing Coon"
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