Hello Friends and Family,

Link to this year's index by clicking here.

Musical Instrument Museum, Part 4

Today with our ever-present music supplied by radio, television, iPod and the Internet, we sometimes forget that it wasn't always this way. A century ago, people were entertained by both live performances and mechanical devices.

Organettes were the first mechanical musical instruments to allow for a wide range of music to be played at will. In 1876, the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia included a small number of self-playing musical instruments from different manufacturers and different countries, and so was probably the first occasion on which a real mechanical musical industry may be said to have existed. Thereafter, a number of companies began to manufacture and sell table-top organettes at the end of the 1870s. Some used perforated cardboard disks, others small, wooden barrels known as cobs, but the majority played cardboard music rolls with a range of fourteen or more notes.

This photo shows an Orguinette Style "C" mechanical reed organ manufactured in the 1880s.

Although no single individual invented the player piano, when Melville Clark introduced the "Apollo" Player with the piano-roll format in 1901, it became the industry standard. Roll manufacturers around the world followed the lead of Clark's 88-note "Q-R-S" rolls.

Player pianos brought the latest hits into the home. To remain current, roll arrangers had to keep up with popular-music styles as they advanced from ragtime to jazz to rock 'n' roll. Technology to print sing-along lyrics on the rolls was developed by 1908 and "word rolls" quickly became the karaoke of the day.

Vast quantities of ethnic music were also issued on rolls. Only now emerging from years of neglect, these rolls give us a unique sound picture of the vibrant cultural diversity that continues to define American life.

Designed by Swedish immigrant Henry Konrad Sandell, the Violano Virtuoso is a coin-operated mechanical violin and piano.

Unique among self-playing instruments, the Violano Virtuoso uses no pneumatics but instead employs an all-electric mechanism to control the instruments. The machine plays paper rolls similar to those used on a player piano but allows electricity rather than air to pass through its perforations, setting the mechanism in motion.

The violin is fingered by a special type of electromagnetically driven levers and bowed by small motorized self-rosining wheels. Vibrato is created by moving the tailpiece back and forth. All four strings can be played simultaneously, allowing the violin to play four-part harmony.

Various models of the violin were in production from 1905 to 1930, and they were popular in cafes, bars and ice cream parlors.

First mass-produced in the mid-1880s, the disk-music box offered a significant advantage over the earlier cylinder type in that it used interchangeable disks, which allowed the music to be easily switched. Advanced models could even change disks automatically. The player in the photo is displayed without the disk in place so you can see the mechanism clearly.

One of the largest American manufacturers of disk-music boxes, the Regina Music Box Company, was established in 1892 by the German manufacturer Polyphon to circumvent the high tariffs on goods imported into the United States.

Disk-music boxes had their greatest popularity from the mid-1890s to the early 1900s. By around 1910, competition from the phonograph had driven most of the disk-music box manufacturers out of business or forced them to turn to other products. The Regina Company later became successful manufacturing vacuum cleaners.

Barrel organs take their name from the wooden barrel with protruding pins that rotates as the crank is turned.

The crank powers both the bellows and the barrel, whose pins trigger valves for corresponding organ pipes. As the barrel rotates, the positioning of the pins determines the sequence of notes played and hence the melody produced.

Typically barrel organs were loud, raucous, portable instruments played outdoors by itinerant musicians known as organ grinders. But barrel organs have a diverse history. In 18th-century France, quieter salon barrel organs of all shapes and sizes played delicate airs. In 19th-century England, barrel organs were sometimes employed to play hymns as a substitute for keyboard organs in smaller churches. Around 1900, the Argentinian organito helped popularize the music of the tango.

The term "automaton" refers to a wide variety of mechanical devices, not all of them musical, that mimic the movements of a living being.

These can range from highly realistic, full-sized human replicas capable of a variety of complex acts, such as playing musical instruments, to the simple and familiar twirling ballerina on a music box. Sometimes automatons are added to musical boxes to provide a visual accompaniment to the music.

Musical devices that imitate the movement and singing of birds have also been a popular form of mechanical device. In contract to avian automatons (as shown here), bird organs, also known as serinettes, served the opposite purpose — these were small-barrel organs designed to teach melodies to actual birds, in effect, making them living musical boxes.

I was surprised to learn that these avian automatons are still being manufactured — just do a Google search for "Reuge singing bird cage" to find devices similar to the one pictured here. You might also want to hold onto your credit card when you find that they often have prices in the $5,000 range. Cute, but out of my price range.

In 1877, Thomas Edison successfully conceived the principle of recording and reproducing sound — and demonstrated the phonograph for the first time. Edison's early devices recorded sound onto a tinfoil sheet phonograph cylinder.

The music critic Herman Klein attended an early demonstration (1881-2) of a similar machine. On the early phonograph's reproductive capabilities he writes "It sounded to my ear like someone singing about half a mile away, or talking at the other end of a big hall; but the effect was rather pleasant, save for a peculiar nasal quality wholly due to the mechanism, though there was little of the scratching which later was a prominent feature of the flat disc".

Regarding recording on the machine he said, "Recording for that primitive machine was a comparatively simple matter. I had to keep my mouth about six inches away from the horn and remember not to make my voice too loud if I wanted anything approximating to a clear reproduction; that was all. When it was played over to me and I heard my own voice for the first time, one or two friends who were present said that it sounded rather like mine; others declared that they would never have recognized it. I daresay both opinions were correct."

The phonograph shown here dates to 1899 and was the first for use in the home.

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". The photo to the right shows a later model, the Amberola model 30, manufactured in 1915.

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 was 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.

The two recording formats battled it out in the marketplace (not unlike the battles between VHS and Betamax) and eventually the disk format won out. Even Edison's company began the switch to disk in 1912 and by 1929, the cylinder was dead.

Measuring over 25 feet long and weighing over two tons, this dance organ was originally manufactured in 1926 by the preeminent Antwerp firm of Theofiel Mortier, S.A.

It was remanufactured into its present configuration by another famous Antwerp company, Gebroeders Decap, in 1950. The largest organs made by the DeCap brothers were often given unique names — "Apollonia" is the female form of "Apollo", the Greek god of the sun and music.

During its working life, this organ was owned by the firm Gebroeders M. & G. Teugels, which provided organs for the popular circuit of dance halls and traveling shows. It remained in Teugels' collection until the mid-1980s, when it was imported into the United States by an American collector.

The adjoining exhibit hall contains an opportunity for hands-on fun. Here are several drums and tambourines and everyone is invited to play.

To my surprise, they had a large Japanese taiko drum. There was a young boy whose parents were trying to get him to bang on the drum — but he appeared to be too shy to give it a try. I'll bet my little buddy, Johnny, would have hit it. In fact, I suspect he would have really gotten into it, hitting it often and hard.

Coincidentally, I recently attended a performance by the famous Kodo Drummers on their 30th Anniversary One Earth Tour 2011 — they were great. If you are not familiar with either taiko drums in general or Kodo Drummers specifically, check out a sampling of their tour by clicking here.

Last but not least in the hands-on room is a set-up with a drum, gongs and xylophones — all for the kids, of all ages, to enjoy.

To be continued...

Life is good.

B. David

P. S., All photos and text © B. David Cathell Photography, Inc. — www.bdavidcathell.com