Look ma, no electrons!

We 21st century folks are so accustomed to doing everything electronically that we tend to forget about (or not even know about) the amazing mechanical devices our grandparents, great-grandparents, great-great-grandparents and great-great-great-grandparents used to use.

From music boxes to player pianos, musical clocks to orchestrions, barrel organs to self-playing violins, the German Museum of Mechanical Musical Instruments in Bruchsal Palace has some five hundred historical musical devices on display, most of them in good working order. In this post I have presented roughly three percent of these magnificent self-playing musical instruments.

Of course I was just kidding when I said there were no electrons. Every atom has at least one electron, but since these historical instruments are purely mechanical the electrons don’t have to do the work. They’re just along for the ride, so to speak.

Bruchsal Palace

Bruchsal is a city of 42,000 people in the Rhine Valley between Heidelberg and Karlsruhe. I took a direct InterCity train from Frankfurt am Main to Bruchsal, where I met up with a small group from the now-defunct website VirtualTourist. They had attended the 7th Annual Glühwein Meeting in Karlsruhe the day before. Both the Karlsruhe meeting and the subsequent excursion to Bruchsal were organized by VirtualTourist member Bernd_L, shown here taking a photo of the re-built and restored Bruchsal Palace. Thanks again, Bernd, for organizing this fine excursion!

Other VirtualTourist members who took part in the excursion were Sue from Sheffield, England, Ingrid from Purmerend, the Netherlands, Christian from Kempten, Germany and Lou from North America. Lou and I met again a week later at the Frankfurt Opera for a performance of The Tales of Hoffmann by Jacques Offenbach (1819-1880). By coincidence this nineteenth century French opera features a life-size mechanical doll that can sing, dance, bow, roll her eyes and even speak (“oui”). So it was appropriate that before seeing this opera we went to the museum in Bruchsal and saw hundreds of ingenious self-playing mechanical instruments, many of them made in Jacques Offenbach‘s own lifetime.

At the Frankfurt Opera the mechanical doll, Olympia, was played and sung by the brilliant young American soprano Brenda Rae, who did a fantastic clockwork dance while singing her stunning coloraturas.

Glockenspiel (carillon) from around 1790

This is an automatic bell-ringing machine that was made around 1790 in Geneva, Switzerland, by a company called Ferdinand Adler and Sons.

The metal drum at the bottom had metal pins or knobs on it corresponding to the different bells. When you rotated the drum, the pins plucked wires which rang the different bells at different frequencies, so as to play a tune. The metal drum was in effect a data storage medium, serving the same purpose as the hard disks and USB sticks that we use today.

There doesn’t seem to be an English word for this sort of machine, so we use either the German word Glockenspiel or the French word carillon.

This is not the oldest machine in the German Museum of Mechanical Musical Instruments, it’s just the oldest one I happened to take a picture of. The oldest machine on display was made 170 years earlier, around 1620.

Switzerland, by the way, turns out to have been an important center of the self-playing musical instrument in the eighteenth century. This is because they already had numerous skilled artisans who had been trained as clock makers. People who could make clocks evidently had little trouble adding a few extra gears to make them into self-playing instruments. Many of these trained clock makers lived in poor rural areas, so they were willing to work for low wages, thus keeping prices competitive.

Upright player piano with a rotating drum

Here’s another instrument which uses a rotating drum as its data storage medium. The drum had to be rotated by hand, using the crank on the left side, and the knobs on the drum activated piano hammers as in an upright piano.

These rotating drums seem to have been the most prevalent data storage medium for some two and a half centuries. They had the advantage of being sturdy and dependable, but the disadvantage was that they were expensive to produce, so most machines came with only one drum or at the most five or six that could be interchanged to produce different tunes.

The rotating drum in the photo has hundreds of pins so it could play a very elaborate piece of piano music with numerous chords. Simple rotating drums are still used today for cheap music boxes, including the ones that can be mounted on a baby’s crib. On YouTube there are various videos from the museum in Bruchsal, including this one with a rotating drum.

Salon organ with extra revolving drums

In this display case there are various mechanical instruments including a salon organ with two extra revolving drums in front of it. By putting in a new drum they could make the organ play an entirely different piece of music. Unfortunately the revolving drums were very expensive, so most owners of salon organs only had a small collection of them.

A similar salon organ (in the museum but not in the photo) was allegedly commissioned in 1912 by the White Star Line for use in the dining room of their luxurious new steamship the RMS Titanic.

The Titanic Organ was built by the Welte Company in Freiburg im Breisgau. This was a company that built high-quality mechanical instruments for exactly a century, from 1832 to 1932.

In the case of the Titanic Organ, however, there was some delay in construction at the Welte factory, so the organ was not finished in time for the maiden voyage of the Titanic on April 10, 1912. This is the reason that the Titanic Organ is now on display in the museum in Bruchsal at 114 meters above sea level, not lying 3803 meters under the sea with the rest of the Titanic, where the ship has been since it sank on April 14, 1912.

But see my later post The Legend of the Titanic Organ for an update.

You can see and hear the “Titanic Organ” on this video

My grandfather was booked on the Titanic, by the way, for its maiden voyage, but then for business reasons he decided to stay on in London for a few more weeks, so he changed his booking for another ship that was leaving later. He never spoke about this (at least not to me), but I assume the Titanic was one of his motivations when he and others founded the National Safety Council the following year. He was the Managing Director of that organization until his retirement thirty years later.

But see my later post The Titanic in Cherbourg for a somewhat different version.

Lochmann’s metal disks

In 1885 in Leipzig a man named Paul Lochmann invented this metal disk, with holes in it instead of pins or knobs, as a data storage medium for mechanical musical instruments. (Coincidentally, the word Loch means “hole” in German.)

Lochmann’s perforated metal disks were less expensive than the traditional rotating drums. They could be mass-produced automatically, took up less space for storage and they could easily be changed so the same machine could play lots of different tunes.

According to researchers at the University of Leipzig, machines with these perforated disks dominated the market in the 1880s and 90s. They say that in 1887 alone, “approximately 52,000 automated instruments were manufactured by the three largest companies in Leipzig; roughly half of them were exported to all parts of the world.”

Polyphon disk changer

This music machine with an automatic disk changer was made by a Leipzig company, Polyphon, in 1915. It could change ten different disks automatically. Like many other Polyphon models, this one was coin-operated and was designed for use in beer halls, restaurants, hotels, or other public spaces.

Music machine with two metal plates

When she showed us this machine, one of the curators said: “Now here’s the same in stereo.”

Actually as far as I can tell it wasn’t any more or less stereo than any of the other machines. The two metal plates rotated and played simultaneously, but the purpose of this was to play numerous notes at once and create an especially full sound. In my opinion all of the automatic music machines were stereo because the sounds were produced in the machine and did not come out of a single loudspeaker, as in later phonographs and other electric machines. In other words, these machines were stereo because mono hadn’t been invented yet.

The machine in the photo above was made around 1900 by the Paul Lochmann company in Leipzig.

Columbia Grafonola de luxe

For two decades the mechanical music market was dominated by machines using perforated metal disks, but then at the beginning of the twentieth century newer technologies such as the phonograph started gaining ground.

During the transition period a company called the Regina Music Box Company of Rahway, New Jersey, USA (an offshoot of the Polyphon company of Leipzig) tried to preserve its market share by producing combination machines which could play both the old metal disks and the newer 78 RPM phonograph records.

This seemed like a good idea at the time because of lot of people still had collections of old metal disks that they wanted to go on playing, but in the long run Regina was not successful in their competition with phonograph makers such as Edison, Victor, Columbia, Pathe, Zonophone and many other makers of modern music machines.

The machine in my photo, on display at the German Museum of Mechanical Musical Instruments in Bruchsal, was manufactured by Regina but was marketed by Columbia as the “Columbia Grafonola de luxe”.

Of course later transitions from older to newer technologies also led to combination machines, such as three-speed phonographs we all used to have that could play the old 78 RPM records as well as the newer 45 or 33 RPM variety.

Today some of us still have combination machines that can play our old audio cassettes as well as the newer CDs and MP3s.

Player piano

Another new technology that became very popular during the first three decades of the twentieth century was the player piano, which typically had a long roll of perforated paper as its data storage medium.

This player piano at the German Mechanical Instrument Museum is still in perfect operating condition, as one of the curators gladly demonstrated for us.

The original paper rolls were made of very strong paper. Many of them are still in good condition a century after they were made. I asked the curator if they don’t ever get torn, and she said it seldom happens but if it does there is a special kind of tape to repair them.


The word Pianola was originally a trademark of the Aeolian Company, but they were so successful that the word later became a generic term referring to any sort of self-playing piano.

This Pianola on display in Bruchsal is in a special room devoted to American-made instruments. Notice the two candles, which were there because people who owned Pianolas did not necessarily have electricity in their houses.

On the right is a close-up of the Pianola, showing the words Metrostyle and Themodist. These were further improvements of the Pianola, first marketed in 1903 (Metrostyle) and 1906 (Thermdist), enabling the person operating the Pianola to control the dynamics and phrasing of the performance.

Tel-Electric Player Piano

Also in the room devoted to American-made instruments is this Tel-Electric Player Piano, which was manufactured by the Tel-Electric Co. of Pittsfield, Massachusetts, USA. This was advertised as “a Player Piano the Old Folks Can Enjoy” because it “Requires No Pumping”. It was essentially a mechanical piano, but it was controlled by magnets and small electric motors instead of by a pneumatic mechanism, as in most other player pianos.

It ran on batteries, so they could advertise: “There need be no Electricity in the house.” Instead of a paper roll the Tel-Electric systems used a thin roll of brass as a data storage medium. But they went back to paper during the First World War, when brass became scarce.

The Tel-Electric Company was founded in 1905. They marketed their player piano systems from 1907 to 1918.

Mechanical violins

Here’s a machine that played two violins automatically, controlled by a paper roll in the bottom compartment of the cabinet.

Automatic xylophone, drum and triangle

Here is a mechanical orchestra including a xylophone, drum and triangle, and probably also a piano at the rear of the cabinet.

Similar machines became very popular in public places America in the early twentieth century under the name Nickelodeon, so-called because you had to put a nickel (a 5-cent coin) into the slot to make it play. Nickelodeons were gradually displaced by juke-boxes using phonograph records, but we young folks all knew about nickelodeons because they were the topic of a popular song in 1950

Put another nickel in
In the nickelodeon
All I want is lovin’ you
And music! music! music!

Bruder Selektion carousel organ

The museum has several carousel organs or fairground organs that were made by the Bruder Brothers, whose company was based in Waldkirch, a town in the Black Forest not far from Freiburg im Breisgau. Before turning one of them on, our guide warned us that these fairground organs are extremely loud, which they had to be because their purpose was to make themselves heard all over the fairgrounds.

In my photo (above) VirtualTourist member Lou is taking a photo of the organ. This organ was built in 1912 by the Bruder Brothers Company in Waldkirch. It was shipped to America where it was used for many years in a carousel at the amusement park in Coney Island, New York. The musicians on the organ of course make appropriate movements as the music is playing. (See and hear the Bruder Selektion carousel organ on this video.) 


Women’s dance band on the Selektion carousel organ

Closer examination reveals that the musicians on the Selektion carousel organ are all women wearing fake moustaches — in the Viennese tradition of all-female dance bands, as in the operetta Ein Walzertraum by Oscar Straus (1870-1954).

Guided tour of the German Museum of Mechanical Musical Instruments

These people on the guided tour are watching the Selektion carousel organ in action.

Ruth & Son model 37

This elaborate fairground organ with three moving figures was made in Waldkirch in 1903 by the firm of A. Ruth & Son. For three generations, from 1841 to 1938, this company produced a variety of high-quality mechanical instruments.

In this video you can see model number 37 in action, playing tunes from the operetta Die Fledermaus (The Bat) by Johann Strauss Jr. (1825-1899). Halfway into the video, at about 0:58, the camera swings around so you can see the data storage medium, an “endless” strip of folded perforated cardboard, being pulled through the machine from the side. The holes in the cardboard controlled the music as well as the movements of the three figures, the conductor and the two lady musicians.

My photos in this post are from 2010. I revised the text in 2017.

See also: Bruchsal Palace, Germany, and
Music in Groningen, the Netherlands.

11 thoughts on “Look ma, no electrons!”

  1. Have you visited the Swiss Organ Museum in Roch? They have a working organ made of paper completed by ten and eleven-year-old school children. They have organ toys and circus organs and a diorama of the process of planning and building an organ. They have a wonderful working steam calliope in addition to the organ collection. The docent let Ed play several of the antique organs since there was no one else on the tour. We had a wonderful day and it’s in an ancient tithe barn so the building was amazing too.

    1. No, I’ve never been to Roche, but I’ve just looked it up on the map. It’s at the east end of Lake Geneva, near Montreux. I’ll add it to my list for my post-corona travels.

  2. Love the beautiful Mechanical Music Organs! So old and still able to play! The Bruder Selektion carousel organ is irresistible – wish I could hear it!

  3. Talking about player pianos, I was recently in Steinway Store where they had a player piano animated by an iPad. It was able to copy the technique of the various pianists as well.

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