1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Musical-box

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MUSICAL-BOX, an instrument for producing by mechanical means tunes or pieces of music. The modern musical-box is an elaboration of the elegant toy musical snuff-box in vogue during the 18th century. The notes or musical sounds are produced by the vibration of steel teeth or springs cut in a comb or flat plate of steel, reinforced by the harmonics generated in the solid steel back of the comb. The teeth are graduated in length from end to end of the comb or plate, the longer teeth giving the deeper notes; and the individual teeth are accurately attuned, where necessary, by filing or loading with lead. Each tone and semitone in the scale is represented by three or four separate teeth in the comb, to permit of successive repetitions of the same note when required by the music. The teeth are acted upon and musical vibrations produced by the revolution of a brass cylinder studded with projecting pins, which, as they move round, raise and release the proper teeth at due intervals according to the nature of the music. A single revolution of the cylinder completes the performance of each of the several pieces of music for which the apparatus is set, but upon the same cylinder there may be inserted pins for performing as many as thirty-six separate airs. This is accomplished by making both the points of the teeth and the projecting pins which raise them very fine, so that a very small change in the position of the cylinder is sufficient to bring an entirely distinct set of pins in contact with the teeth. In the more elaborate musical-boxes the cylinders are removable, and may be replaced by others containing distinct sets of music. In these also there are combinations of bell, drum, cymbal and triangle effects, &c. The revolving motion of the cylinder is effected by a spring and clock-work which on some modern instruments will work continuously for an hour and a half without winding, and the rate of revolution is regulated by a fly regulator. The headquarters of the musical-box trade is Geneva, where the manufacture gives employment to thousands of persons.

The musical-box is a type of numerous instruments for producing musical effects by mechanical means, in all of which a revolving cylinder or barrel studded with pins is the governing feature. The position of the pins on the barrel is determined by two considerations: those of pitch and of time or rhythm. The degrees of pitch or semitones of the scales are in the direction of the length of the cylinder, while those of time, or the beats in the bars, are in the path of the revolution of the cylinder. The action of the pins is practically the same for all barrel instruments; each pin serves to raise some part of the mechanism for one note at the exact moment and for the exact duration of time required by the music to be played, after which, passing along with the revolution of the cylinder, it ceases to act. The principle of the barrel operating by friction, by percussion or by wind on reeds, pipes or strings governs carillons or musical bells, barrel organs, mechanical flutes, celestial voices, harmoniphones, violin-pianos and the orchestrions and polyphons in which a combination of all orchestral effects is attempted. In the case of wind instruments, such as flutes, trumpets, oboes, clarinets, imitated in the more complex orchestrions, the pins raise levers which open the valves admitting air, compressed by mechanical bellows, to various kinds of flue-pipes, and to others fitted with beating and free reeds. The sticks used for striking bells, drums, cymbals and triangles are set in motion in a similar manner. A fine set of full-page drawings, published at Frankfort in 1615,[1] makes the whole working of the pinned barrel quite clear, and establishes the exact relation of the pins to the music produced by the barrel so unmistakably that some bars of the piece of music set on the cylinder can be made out. The prototype of the 19th-century musical-box is to be found in the Netherlands where during the 15th century the dukes of Burgundy encouraged the invention of ingenious mechanical musical curiosities such as "organs which played of themselves," musical snuff-boxes, singing birds, curious clocks, &c. A principle of more recent introduction than the studded cylinder consists of sheets of perforated paper or card, somewhat similar to the Jacquard apparatus for weaving. The perforations correspond in position and length to the pitch and duration of the note they represent, and as the web or long sheet of paper passes over the instrument the perforated holes are brought in proper position and sequence under the influence of the suction or pressure of air from a bellows, and thereby the notes are either directly acted on, as in the case of reed instruments, or the opening and closing of valves set in motion levers or liberate springs which govern special notes. The United States are the original home of the instruments controlled by perforated paper known as orguinettes, organinas, melodeons, &c. All these instruments are being gradually replaced in popular favour by the piano-players and the gramophone. (K. S.)


1^  See S. de Caus, Les forces mouvantes; and article Barrell Organ.