Cylinder music boxes (invented in 1796) proved to be very successful.
They were a means of providing live music without performers. The sound produced
was very much like a group of harpists or a hand bell choir.
Additional tunes, however, could not be added at will. One had to be
content with the tunes the box came with. In order to provide several
tunes in one music box, the shifting cylinder was invented. As one
set of pins on the cylinder rang the resonating "teeth" of the "comb", other sets of pins (representing other tunes) passed quietly between the teeth. At the end of a tune, the cylinder would shift sideways, causing the next set of pins to line up with the "teeth".
In this way, several tunes (sometimes as many as 12) could be played
by one cylinder music box.
A later development was the interchangeable cylinder music box. The cylinder could actually be removed and replaced with another one that had different tunes. The pins, however, were fragile, making these rather delicate, and one's tune selection was still limited.
The development of Symphonion disc music boxes made tunes easy to add and
relatively inexpensive, as well as making good music boxes more affordable.
Symphonion (or Kalliope) boxes were originally made in Leipzig, Germany
during the late 1880's. They were destined to become some of the greatest
music boxes ever known. They were designed to accept individual tune discs,
allowing one music box to play many tunes. As improvements continued, options
were added. Quite often, the delicate music was accompanied by bells which
played along with the "comb". In some cases, a choice could be made to
play the bells or turn them off by means of a switch placed at the right
of the box near the winding crank.
Other music box makers soon caught on to the new disc technology and began
building their own masterpieces: most notably the Polyphon in Germany and the
Regina in the United States. They played discs as big as 24 or even 27 inches
in diameter. A 24-inch disc would normally play for nearly 2 minutes, bringing
much enjoyment to each household or establishment.
The Gramophone (or record player) soon replaced disc music boxes, again due to lower price and greater variety of music available (orchestral, vocal, etc.).
Today, the Music Box is returning and appears to be making a strong comeback. We believe it is because people are discovering that recorded music just cannot replace the sound of live instruments. It is still a fascinating phenomenon, and reminds us of the glories of yesteryear.
For some information related to recent music box industry history,
Vs Sankyo and Reuge