The Swiss music box has a long history and was the entertainment of choice at one point in the mechanical music industry. In fact, it was a thriving industry in Switzerland and the world started to notice.
This allowed for its dominance, for a time, in the music industry, and it would have continued to today if not for the limitations that its mechanism has imposed on it.
WHEN IT ALL STARTED
The thought of a Swiss music box came about when the teeth and comb mechanism was invented. However, it is still being argued when and who integrated this mechanism into the music box, but most have identified that the very first music box was crafted in 1796 by Antoine Favre.
Not much is known about the watchmaker from Geneva which may be due to two reasons.
Firstly, in spite the revolutionary contribution he had in the industry of mechanical music, he did not invent the teeth and comb mechanism which became the core in the mechanism of a Swiss music box until he was 62 years old.
The second reason for this might be due to his health. After it was discovered that his pocketwatch was integrated with the mechanism that allowed it to produce sound, his health was already deteriorating. He spent more time trying to fend off death rather than being celebrated for his discovery.
In spite of this revolutionary contribution, he did not enjoy the celebratory adulation that he would have received. In addition, he also died poor when he passed away on the 17th of August 1820.
Luckily, his pocketwatch was discovered before he passed away and many Swiss watchmakers carried on his legacy.
CARRYING ON FAVRE’S LEGACY
Swiss watchmakers continued the work that Favre left behind too early. They continued to tinker about the Swiss music box and from then established two types of mechanism – the cylinder-type and the disc type.
Both of these mechanisms were influential in furthering the industry.
Cylinder-Type Swiss Music Box
The very first version of the Swiss music box was built with a cylinder in its core which is a big step up from the original design where the core is a metal disk.
With the cylinder, you have a less bulky mechanism, yet sturdier.
The cylinder has small protrusions on it which, when propelled to turn by the spring when tightened by a lever will strike the teeth and comb mechanism to produce the sounds that it was programmed to produce.
This launched a music box industry in Switzerland that became very successful, and this was when the world started to notice.
The Swiss music box was then introduced to the continent urging Swiss artisan watchmakers to continue tinkering to improve the public’s experience with the music boxes. Innovations include increasing the number of teeth on the comb to accurately represent as many notes as possible (the teeth represents the notes in a composition) giving it more depth and more accuracy.
All these tinkering was geared towards the hope of a better musical experience. However, after so many aspiring innovations done to the music box, it eventually was too much that the cylinder-type Swiss music box started to decline in sales because the changes were not significant enough to make the public rave for them.
Disc-Type Swiss Music Box
The development of the disc-type music box was headed by the Germans and a German company called Polyphone, and its introduction in the market was very successful because this was the most significant innovation to the Swiss music box since the initial integration of the cylinder into its movement (this is what we call the mechanism of a music box).
Unlike the disc-type that we had initially prior to the cylinder being introduced, this one is lighter. In fact, when it was first introduced, Polyphon only used cardboard to demonstrate their new product.
After the demonstration, this version of the Swiss music box blew and the music box industry was back on track.
Aside from the disc that is the core that powers this forward thinking music box, its star wheel is also what makes it distinct from its predecessor This acts as the cylinder but unlike the cylinder-type, this one does not propel on its own. It is propelled by the protrusion on the disc that is loaded into the box. As a result, it turns to strike a set of two comb and teeth mechanism to produce the programmed sound.
What this does is assure a more accurate representation of the composition since it gives it more depth being able to put on more teeth on the comb compared to when there was only one of this in its movement.
However, even when they were German companies, they still looked to the expertise of the Swiss because they cannot replicate the quality of the teeth and comb mechanism that only the Swiss can create.
Working jointly betweent he Germans and the Swiss made this music box very successful, and because of this success, Polyphon decided to bring this over to the shores of America.
SWISS MUSIC BOX IN AMERICA
With the disc-type music box’s success, Symphonion decided to take their operations to America, but he established it under a different name – Regina Music Box Company – through Gustave Brachaussen.
In the first few years of operation, the Regina Music Box Company imported most of their products directly from Symphonion. Even worse, they had them assembled prior to importation which eventually progressed to parts being sent over and for Brauchassen assembling them in America themselves.
This was even made better when he was able to get all the patents he requires.
Being able to assemble all the Swiss music boxes on their own on American soil made their operation even more successful. One of their operations was selling their products at a wholesale price, and this was well received by the many retailers across the country.
However, this was not what made them well known across the country.
In 1897, Brachaussen was able to have his patent for an automatic disc changer approved, and for it to run, it will require a coin to be dropped through a slot. This became the jukebox which normally requires a coin to operate. By dropping a coin, you trigger a mechanism inside that will change the disc on its own without the help of anyone.
All the user has to do is choose which song they want played. Once a selection is made, the mechanisms inside will work to change the disc from one to the other and immediately play the song that it was intended to play.
During this time, it was all melody, but would later improve to include lyrics when played.
To complete the jukebox predecessor, they even had to invite Octave Felicien Chaillet, an arranger for Symphonion, to come over to America and work for them.
A Gift to the Household
As mentioned many time, the drive to innovate the Swiss music Box has always been the fact that individuals just wants to enjoy music the way they want to.
Brachaussen saw an opportunity there to make this dream a reality, and that is by shrinking the Swiss music box to a size that is not bulky looking inside the household. This is when the predesecessor of the gramophone came about.
What makes it convenient is the fact that all the public has to do is buy discs and change it as they please, and it is because of these devices that Brachaussen made from the original Swiss music box that the large and bulky boxes that once graced public places such as stations and bars slowly faded away.
Additionally, it was also beneficial to Brachaussen and his company because with such convenience, the public were more willing to buy. To balance this, however, the smaller boxes were sold at a cheaper price.
Truly a win-win for everyone involved.
For decades, and even centuries, the Swiss music box has dominated the mechanical music industry and the entertainment industry long enough to prevent any lingering thoughts of the device being fad. However, such a good run had to end, and there were three things that had the biggest impact to its decline.
The World Wars
Both the First and the Second World War had a huge impact on the run of the Swiss music box. This was because during, and most especially after each one, they have been seen as a luxury. In fact, even before these wars broke out, they already were. The difference, however, is that people still had the financial capability to buy them and their accessories.
The huge war efforts changes this, especially in between and after the wars.
The Great Depression
The Great Depression came straight after the Second World War which made another big impact on the recovery of the Swiss music box industry.
After the wars, everyone was hit so bad financially supporting the war efforts made by their countries. that their focus has shifted to other more important and pressing things. In fact, most families were barely getting by with the money that they have. They would not have any money left for any more luxuries.
In addition, the companies manufacturing the Swiss music box were also starting to go bankrupt, or at least the branches in charge of manufacturing them that they either closed, or shifted their attention on other branches of their company.
Even Regina Music Box Company, the very company that gave rise to the success of the music box in the United States of America, did.
Before the wars, Regina already dropped the ‘Music Box’ from their name and expanded in producing vacuum cleaners and any other electronic appliances. With the low prospect of revenue from the boxes, they moved their resources over to other more necessary production and halted their music box branch.
The gramophone struck the final blow that sent the Swiss music box in the abyss of the mechanical music industry because of one thing – recorded voices.
The music box has been known to be capable of being programmed to play any song. However, there was one limitation to its mechanism that no matter how advocates of the device try, it will never be part of its function – the ability to produce a recorded voice.
It was always stuck with the melody.
The gramohone was different because it had a speaker where it allows for recorded voices to be produced incuding the melody. This is because it was not relying on just metal teeth and comb to strike each other for any music to be produced.
It was a luxury, yes, but it became an necessar escape for so many that it gave more value for its worth.
This story is just like any other story in the industry where technology and innovation is involved – the public will always choose the one which is newer and better especially when it gives a lot more value.
Sankyo saw a new opportunity for the Swiss music box just after the Second World War. It involved shrinking its size even further, and putting it on jewelry boxes, and also saw its potential as a novelty gift item.
In addition, it had low production cost which makes it even more attractive to businessmen.
In Europe, some companies who dabbled in the production of the Swiss music box before has now turned to its upscale production. This meant integrating them into things like carousels and wood inlays.
In a way, even as the Swiss music box died, it gave birth a different industry altogether showing that even in death it can give life.
The Swiss music box faded out from history as strongly as it came out. Such unfortunate events compounded by its own limitations, one could say, set it up for failure. Regardless, to have such a lasting impact on the music industry and inspiring the generations that came after it should be enough to make Swiss proud.