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History of Music Machines | Evolution of Music Players

Posted on 2020-06-19

According to a recent report, the average person spends about 18 hours a week listening to music. With modern technology, it's easier than ever before to find and listen to our favorite songs. Most of us would have a difficult time imagining a world devoid of all recorded music. It enhances nearly every area of our lives, including road trips, waiting rooms and even grocery stores. 

the history of music machines

Of course, this wasn't always the case. Before the evolution of music listening brought us to where we are today, enjoying recorded music required more time and attention. For this reason, earlier listeners considered recorded music a rare and exciting luxury. 

To learn more about the history of music playing technology, let's journey back to the 1800s.

What Are Old Music Players Called? 

French inventor Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville crafted the first known sound recording machine in the early 1800s — known as the phonautograph — but his intention was never to play those sounds back. Instead, his machine visually recorded the vibrations of different sounds and transcribed them for later study. Although not a music machine, the phonautograph was an essential part of the development of later technologies.

The first music playing device able to both record and play back music was the phonograph. Created by Thomas Edison in July 1877, the phonograph captured sounds and engraved the movements into tinfoil cylinders. Edison first had the idea for a sound recording device when he was working on his diagrams for the telephone transmitter and realized he could replicate those vibration indentations for other purposes. 

old school phonograph

With the help of machinist John Kruesi, Edison finished the first model of the phonograph by December of the same year. The first sound ever recorded and played back was Edison's rendition of "Mary Had a Little Lamb," likely because his children were 5 and 2 years old at the time. When the invention worked, Edison wasn't the only one surprised. The creation helped earn him the titles "Inventor of the Age" and "The Wizard of Menlo Park." 

Although the sound recording was poor quality and could only be played back once, Edison unintentionally sparked a revolution for the music industry. If one could ask, he would probably be shocked at the evolution of his invention. His original plans for the phonograph centered around business-related diction, not music. Nevertheless, he laid the groundwork for all the music devices to come.

Music Devices of the 1800s

After Edison's phonograph became known to the public, other inventors began taking the same methods he used to create newer and better ways to record sound. Their improvements and additions played equally important roles in the history of music playing devices.

music machines of the 1800s

1. Graphophone

Alexander Graham Bell — the same man responsible for the invention of the telephone — was also the first one to change Edison's design. Instead of tinfoil cylinders, Bell used wax cylinders for his graphophone because they had stronger ridges and were more effective at recording sounds. Similar to Edison, Bell and his team of fellow inventors didn't have music on their minds when crafting the design. They thought it would be a useful tool for recording telephone conversations. 

2. Gramophone

Around the same time Bell was making his improvements, a German-American inventor by the name of Emile Berliner was working on his own modification — the gramophone. Although you will often find "gramophone" and "phonograph" used interchangeably, they are slightly different. In 1887, Berliner patented the first sound recording device that utilized grooved, flat disks, rather than cylinders. These flat disks are the earliest known version of the record, which was later created out of vinyl. 

Berliner chose flat disks because they were simpler and less costly to reproduce, making them more marketable to the general public. Eventually, the disks we know now as "78s" emerged. These were a type of early record with a playing speed of 78 revolutions per minute. If you're lucky, you can still find some 78s on the collector's market today. 

It wasn't long before several companies built on Berliner's design. Thanks to businesses like Victor Talking Machine Company and their patented Victrola machine, by the 1900s, mass-market gramophones were ready for the public. 

3. Music Boxes

Because no one is certain when the first music boxes came to be, many experts agree this early music player existed before the well-known devices we've already discussed. Unlike the phonograph, however, music boxes were not designed to record sound. Instead, they used tiny, tuned metal combs set inside a disk. When in motion, steel pins moved across the comb to produce a delicate sound. 

One of the earliest known inventors of the music box was Swiss watchmaker Louis Favre, who was largely responsible for the growing popularity of these machines. By 1815, music boxes were ornate and intricately designed, and some could even play multiple songs. Over time, music boxes became even more advanced with the addition of other sound-making elements, like bells and cymbals. 

Once Edison's phonograph became widely known, music box popularity saw a decline — but only for a while. Although they have never quite reached the same level of popularity as they once had, music boxes are a sought-after item for many antique and music lovers' collections.

Music Devices of the 1900s

Although the 1800s were an exciting time in the history of music players, they were only the first chapter. Throughout the 1900s, music players evolved rapidly and frequently.

1. Radios

Up until the 1920s, radios were used almost exclusively for naval and military communication. However, after World War I ended, people began buying radios for private use. Eventually, public broadcast stations — including the British Broadcasting Company (BBC) — started to fill airwaves with news updates and entertainment. Westinghouse Company's KDKA was the first radio station officially licensed by the government.

During private radio's early years, entertainment came in the form of broadcast serial programming, which was similar to what audiobooks and televisions provide today. Listeners tuned in each day or week to listen to a new chapter or episode of a continuous story.

1920s radio

By World War II, radios were playing music for listeners of all ages. Of course, this made early technologies like the gramophone nearly obsolete, but later versions of record players continued becoming popular.

2. Accordeo Boys

By the 1920s, music players were advanced enough that inventors started to get creative and entertaining with their delivery. The perfect example of this and the artistry of the 1920s is the Accordeo Boy. The Accordeo Boy was a type of musical automaton, complete with moving lips, head, fingers and eyebrows. 

The Accordeo Boy was seated with an accordion in-hand and a large drum at his feet. After a viewer inserted a coin, he began to "play" music for the listener, often as entertainment for diners at bistros. Can you imagine sipping a glass of French wine while listening to something so unique?

Accordeo Boys are a rare find today. The music machine exhibit at Volo Auto Museum is home to a France-imported 1923 Accordeo Boy, one of only two known machines in the United States. 

3. Player Pianos

Self-playing pianos might sound like a scene from a scary movie, but in the 1920s, they were a popular form of musical entertainment. Player pianos, including the hand-carved 1927 Steinway Duo-Art Grand Piano at Volo Auto Museum, used a perforated music roll to simulate two people playing the piano. 

keyboard for playing music

Although musicians could also play these pianos by hand, they were created to reproduce live performances. If you closed your eyes, you might have had trouble believing there wasn't someone playing music. 

4. The Bodson Double Tino 

The 1928 Bodson Double Tino was similar to the Accordeo Boy in that it featured moving musical automatons. The difference is that, instead of a one-man show, the Double Tino features two band members. One figure — who resembles the original Accordeo Boy — plays the accordion, while the other is a drummer who plays the snare and bass drums, as well as the cymbals. 

The Double Tino puts on quite a show, and the one on display at Volo Auto Museum is a very rare find originally from Nice, France.

5. Steam Calliopes

When was the first portable music player invented? Ask anyone, and they will likely mention transistor radios, Walkmans or MP3 players. However, there was one early version of "portable" music that you shouldn't overlook — steam calliopes. 

Steam calliopes were steam-powered organs that produced loud sounds and music to attract the attention of passersby. Many were built into vehicles for maximum mobility, including the one housed at Volo. Our circus calliope sits atop a Ford Model A, making it a one-of-a-kind sight for those interested in both music and car history.

6. Dance Organs

Before World War I, dance organs were very popular across Europe. These machines were giant organs sold to dance halls and traveling shows to replace full orchestras. 

Volo's 1947 91-key Mortier Dance Hall Orchestra is a beautiful art deco piece originally designed for indoor use at the Crystal Palace Dance Hall in Belgium. Renown organ builder Johnny Verbeich skillfully restored the relic — a project that cost $150,000 — and reinvigorated the sound of this dance organ. Because the Mortier uses mechanics instead of digital sound to replicate real instruments, it truly sounds like an orchestra is playing.

It took a forklift to get this 1.5-ton machine into the exhibit, but when you listen to the music it plays while viewing its color-changing light show, you'll understand why it was all worth it.

7. Automatic Pipe Organs

Later, the automatic pipe organ was invented, which played music from rolls of etched paper. Early versions of this machine were implemented in theaters to play alongside silent films as a type of soundtrack. Once designers figured out a way to produce multiple genres of music on the automatic pipe organ, theater houses across the country began using them to enhance the viewing experience.

automatic pipe organ

8. Jukeboxes 

When you consider the fact that most people today still know of — and have likely seen or even used — jukeboxes, you'll begin to understand the immense popularity of these music players after they burst onto the scene in the early 1930s. Early versions of the jukebox were technically just coin-operated phonographs, but it wasn't their function that made them popular. It was the spaces that formed around these machines — establishments known as juke joints — that shaped the music culture as we know it.

Jukebox production slowed during World War II but saw a resurgence once the war was over. These music players were available in colorful, lighted variations. The ability to see the machine "choose" the record after the listener inserted a coin and picked a song made them a spectacle for both the ears and eyes. 

Volo Auto Museum has a collection of beautifully restored jukeboxes, including a Mae West and the jukebox from "Happy Days."

9. Transistor Radios

In 1954, several decades after radios became commonplace in the America home, the Regency Division of Industrial Development Engineering Associates and Texas Instruments worked together to release what became the next huge movement in music history — the transistor radio

The earliest model of this portable music player was the Regency TR-1, an approximately 5-by-4-inch radio encased in plastic with a headphone jack and controls for easy listening. As rock 'n' roll hit its stride, the device once marketed toward adults became a hit with teenagers across the globe. It also launched a portability movement in music machines that still exists today.

10. Audio Cassettes and the Walkman

The Radio Corporation of America (RCA) released the first variation of audio cassettes in 1958, but they didn't find success until Phillips shrunk the design and crafted a cassette tape for people to record with. In 1966, Nina Simone, Eartha Kitt and Johnny Mathis were among the first artists to record an album released on audio cassette. By the '70s, people were listening to their favorite musicians from the comfort of their homes and cars. 

Building on the popularity of the portable transistor radio, Sony Corp. released the Sony Walkman TPS-L2 in 1979. The Walkman was a lightweight, portable cassette player with two separate headphone jacks for dual listening. For the majority of the 1980s, the Walkman dominated music and pop culture.

Advanced versions, like solar-powered players and Walkmans with built-in radio, were also popular. 

Sony Walkman

11. Boomboxes 

Boomboxes were another widely used form of portable music, though they were vastly different from Walkmans or transistor radios. Instead of small, pocket-sized devices, the boombox was a larger battery-operated portable radio. The allure of these music players were the built-in speakers, which were loud enough for an entire neighborhood to hear your music playing as you walked by. 

Throughout the late '70s and mid-'90s, boomboxes were more than a music device — they became a fashion symbol of urban society. Many believe boomboxes played an integral part in the spread of the hip-hop genre, which gained popularity around the same time.

12. CD Players

Combining the ideas and technologies behind early music players and modern-day portable devices, compact discs (CDs) were the next natural step after cassette tapes. In 1982, Sony released the first commercially available CD player, known as the Sony CDP-101. 

When Dire Straits released their new album "Brothers in Arms" in 1985, the CD version outsold the cassette for the first time in music history. Soon after, CD sales jumped, and studios shifted their focus, making these discs a permanent staple in the evolution of music playing devices.

Other versions of CDs — the CD-recordable (CD-R) and CD-rewritable (CD-RW) — allowed individuals to purchase a blank disc and record their own sounds, making them a convenient way to share music and other audible content. This ability spawned the creation of peer-to-peer music sharing websites, which meant anyone could find a song on the internet and download it to their CD-R or CD-RW for a custom compilation.

Initial versions of CD players were essentially radios with built-in disc readers, but portable CD players soon hit the market. 

13. MP3 Players

After debuting a successful prototype for the first MP3 player, Saehan Information Systems mass-produced the MPMan F10 in 1998. Soon after, Diamond Multimedia released the slightly more affordable Rio PMP300, and MP3 players became the next big thing in music.

These early devices were bulky and had little storage, but they were still part of the portability movement that listeners had come to expect from music players by the late 1990s and early 2000s. Once again, listeners used peer-to-peer websites to download music, as well as manufacturer-specific software. The most well-known example came with Apple's iPod in 2001. After Apple also opened iTunes, the web-based music library behind the iPod, to Windows PC users, MP3 players dominated the market.

Original Apple Ipod

Where We Are Today

How have music players changed since then? The 1900s brought groundbreaking change to the world of music, leaving us with a strong foundation for the technology we enjoy today. Here's a brief look at where the evolution of portable music players has brought us:

  • MP3 players: The popularity of MP3 players and iPods lasted throughout the 2000s, with added improvements like touch screen capability. In the mid-2010s, they began losing steam after smartphones became advanced enough for integrated music listening.
  • Music streaming: After Youtube launched in 2005, internet-based music streaming and other streaming services — such as Spotify — allowed listeners to browse and select specific songs with ease. Listeners no longer need ample storage space to fit their vast libraries of downloaded music. Instead, we can now craft, save and revisit dozens of personalized playlists and share them with others with the click of a button. 
  • Wireless listening: Thanks to Bluetooth technology, there is a special emphasis on listening to music privately but without the need for wired headphones. Instead, many of today's listeners utilize rechargeable earbuds or headphones. 

In addition to modern technology, many key devices in the evolution of music players still exist today. Variations of popular machines like musical automatons, player pianos and jukeboxes can be found in entertainment venues around the world.

Modern music streaming technology

See Historic Music Machines at Volo Auto Museum

If you've enjoyed learning about the history of music machines, see some of the rarest and most unique players for yourself at Volo Auto Museum. The Music Room — our music machine exhibit — features six one-of-a-kind music machines, as well as an extensive collection of restored jukeboxes.

Located in Volo, Illinois — just a short trip from Chicago — Volo Auto Museum has 33 total exhibits, which offer endless fun and education for the whole family. After enjoying our music machine exhibit, you can also explore other popular rooms, including those with antique arcade games and vintage scooters

Of course, we're not called Volo Auto Museum for nothing. You can also learn more about your favorite TV and movie carshistoric pedal carsvintage vehicles and even the famous Batmobile.

Visit us online to learn more about Volo Auto Museum and start planning your trip today!

Historic music machines at Volo Museum

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