The history of musical machines is inextricably linked to the history of clocks. The same highly complex clockwork mechanisms that powered the great timepieces of the 16th and 17th centuries informed the creation of later automata, singing bird boxes and music boxes. In fact, the link between the clock and the automaton is seen as early as 3000 B.C.E., when Egyptian water clocks were equipped with human figurines possessing the ability to strike a bell on the hour.

The Strasbourg astronomical clock located in the Cathédrale Notre-Dame of Strasbourg, Alsace, France, is exemplary of the close ties between the development of the clock and the automaton. First built in 1352-54, it was later reconstructed in 1571-74 and featured several mechanical figures, as well as a calendar, orrery and other astronomical complexities. The addition of the moving figures made the religious message of the timepiece and its setting more vivid. In one particularly poignant group of figures, the twelve apostles parade before Jesus, who is depicted blessing each in turn. Although the clock in place today dates to the 19th century, fragments of earlier clocks are kept in the Strasbourg Museum for Decorative Arts, including the 14th-century gilded rooster, which is considered the oldest preserved automaton in the world.

 As clockmakers of the 17th and 18th centuries invented increasingly more complex clockwork mechanisms, they turned their attention to other challenges in the form of automata, bird boxes and music boxes. These mechanical wonders soon became highly coveted objects of luxury entertainment for the wealthy classes, setting the stage for major technological developments to come.

Automata in the Age of Enlightenment

(left) Astronomical clock in Cathédrale Notre-Dame of Strasbourg;
(right) Historical elements in Strasbourg Museum

Vaucanson's Automata: The Flute Player, The Tambourine Player and Digesting Duck

Pierre Jaquet-Droz, who had helped bring about the golden age of musical automata with his aforementioned Harpsichord Player, Writer and Draughtsman, created another mechanical marvel around 1785: the singing bird box. He built upon his knowledge of miniature musical mechanisms to develop a small box containing a tiny, singing automaton bird. At first, Jaquet-Droz created larger-scale caged singing birds that sung with the help of a miniature pipe organ, an instrument that required a separate pipe for each note. He successfully simplified this pipe-organ mechanism into a single pipe of variable pitch and further miniaturized it into a snuff box-sized form that could fit into the palm of one’s hand. Owing to their inherent charm and ingenious construction, these novel “noblemen’s toys” immediately enchanted 18th-century Europe’s high society.

Like the automaton and the singing bird box, the first music boxes date to the 18th century, when inventors obsession with clockwork mechanisms was at its height. However, the concept of a machine that played music was first manifested in the carillon, a system of bells found in the towers of churches and government buildings used to indicate the time of day, church services or secular village events. Emerging in 1510 in Flanders, the carillon incorporated bells that spanned more than an octave and played from a rotating cylinder with stick-like keys corresponding to a particular bell. The earliest of these systems required a “ringer,” known as a carillonneur or “carillonist,” who played the keyboard and pedalboard, though later examples were automated.

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MUSICAL AUTOMATONS

One of the most intimate forms of art, the miniature represents a compelling chapter in the history of art. While large-scale portraits served as a testament to one’s power and importance, the miniature had a far different purpose. Given as personal gifts to loved ones and bestowed as rewards for loyal supporters, they were meant to be kept close and private as a reminder of one’s love, faith or fealty. Today, they offer us a glimpse into a world that no longer exists — of courtiers and kings, of generals and revolutionaries — each rendered down to the most minute detail. Yet, the emotional impulses behind their creation remain familiar, and it is this dichotomy that makes them so captivating to contemporary viewers and collectors. 

The history of automata and mechanical music is inextricably linked to humankind’s pursuit of knowledge: knowledge of science, knowledge of engineering and knowledge of our own humanity. Combining technical skill and artistry, automata, music boxes and singing bird boxes possess an intrinsic elegance and charm that continue to enchant onlookers to this day, even in an age of modern, on-demand entertainment. Human-shaped machines that convey the illusion of being alive, delightful little birds that plump their feathers and sing a tune, automatic music players that perform on par with a concert pianist...these captivating, ingenious and mysterious machines represent a remarkable history of invention, philosophical curiosity and popular culture that remains highly relevant. The Art of Sound: Automata and Mechanical Music explores these fascinating mechanisms and their lasting impact.

AN INTRODUCTION

A BRIEF HISTORY

Musicians were popular subjects for automata. Perhaps the world’s most famous automaton is La Joueuse de Tympanon, the dulcimer player made by Pierre Kintzing (1745-1816) for Queen Marie Antoinette in 1784 (Musée des Arts et Métiers, Paris). Like Vaucanson’s flûteur, Kintzing’s dulcimer player was likely based on a prototype by Joseph Möllinger (1715–1772), an instrument-maker and clockmaker at the court in Zweibrücken. Part of a small, but influential community of Mennonite clockmakers, it is known that Möllinger taught clockmaking to Kinzing – the man who would later construct the mechanism for the Marie Antoinette dulcimer player.

The Dulcimer Player Automaton by Joseph Möllinger, M.S. Rau, New Orleans (SOLD)

Read On

French Walking Peacock Automaton

by Roullet et Decamps. Circa 1890
 

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Automata and the Modern Era

The Industrial Revolution brought change to all sectors of society, the toymaking industry included. Thanks to a rapidly expanding middle class, a growing group of clientele emerged who were able and willing to pay for novelty items such as automata. Firms such as Roullet et Decamps, Bontems and Théroude became the first mass producers of these charming “toys,” most of which contained a small cylinder music box that played as an automaton performed its motions.

Tightrope Walker Automaton. Circa 1860. M.S. Rau, New Orleans (Sold)

The majority of these musical and mechanical figurines were influenced by the entertainment of their time and place. Paris during the Belle Époque was a whirlwind of lavish affairs and exotic amusements. The snake charmers and exotic dancers of the famed Folies-Bergère inspired a number of toymakers of the age, while the characters of the Nouveau Cirque and other circuses provided inspiration in the form of jugglers, animal trainers and clowns. These characters and more came to life in 19th-century drawing rooms thanks to the ingenuity and creativity of modern toymakers.

BIRD BOXES

Noblemen's Toys

Frères Rochat Petit Swiss Singing Bird Box. Circa 1820. M.S. Rau, New Orleans (Sold)

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Swiss Fusée Singing Bird Box by Frères Rochat. Circa 1830. M.S. Rau, New Orleans (Sold)

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Tortoiseshell Swiss Fusée Singing Bird Box by Patek Philippe. Circa 1855. M.S. Rau, New Orleans (Sold)

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Swiss Singing Bird Box. Circa 1820. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

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Swiss Gold Singing Bird Box by Charles Bruguier. Circa 1840. M.S. Rau, New Orleans

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Tortoiseshell Bird Box by Bontems. Circa 1890. Museo Cerralbo, Madrid, Spain

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Enamel Singing Bird Box by Karl Griesbaum. Early 20th century. M.S. Rau, New Orleans (sold)

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Their form was inspired, in part, by the snuff boxes, or tabatières (the French word for tobacco), that were then highly fashionable status symbols among European nobility. The word tabatière evolved to include bird boxes, and the term distinguishes them from their larger, caged counterparts. Bird boxes may closely resemble snuff boxes in terms of both size and artistry, but where they differ is in what they contain.

Read On

Music Boxes

Carillon in the Belfort of Gent

Since carillons and large clocks both resided within the same church belfries throughout Europe, merging the two mechanisms with a giant automated cylinder was a natural progression. The large cylinder — called a drum — contained pins corresponding to a series of levers and hammers connected to bells. Turning the drum at an even tempo rang the bells, producing a melody and effectively achieving automated music for the first time.

Swiss Ideal Music Box and Cabinet by Mermod Frères. Circa 1886.
M.S. Rau, New Orleans

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Descartes view of animals as machines is a revelation into this progression: “Consider the body as a machine, which, having been made by the hands of God, is incomparably better coordinated and has much more admirable movement in it than any of those which could be invented by man.” Accordingly, these early androids were artificial creations that sought to mimic that which was made by God, possessing the appearance of a living being from their physical forms to their essential functions.

Polyphon Autochange Disk Music Box

The Age of Enlightenment (1685-1815) brought with it a new fascination for automata outside of their mere mechanics. During this period, European intellectuals embarked on a quest to uncover the secrets of the universe, which suddenly seemed within reach. Certain discoveries, such as the English physician William Harvey’s discovery of the circulation of the blood in 1628, suggested that the basic functions and mechanics of the human body were knowable. Naturally, mechanisms that imitated the human form and human activities emerged soon thereafter.

Mechanical Marvels

Swiss Fusée Singing Bird Box by Frères Rochat. Circa 1830. M.S. Rau, New Orleans (Sold)

A Brief History

Musical Automatons

Bird Boxes

Music Boxes

Thanks to these early innovations, the history of the music box as we know it begins with Genevan watchmaker Antoine Favre's 1796 discovery of the cylinder music movement. These musical cylinders all operate on the same principle: steel pins or combs of different lengths are plucked as the cylinder rotates, producing a note with each pluck. The combs are tuned to the musical scale and arranged like a keyboard in order to produce a melody.

Swiss Ideal Music Box and Cabinet by Mermod Frères. Circa 1886. M.S. Rau New Orleans

Favre, unfortunately, never enjoyed success from his discovery; poor health forced his retirement, and he died a poor man. However, by the early 19th century, other Swiss craftsmen and horologists were applying the cylinder comb technology to their own creations, giving rise to the cylinder music box industry. Switzerland remained the center of music box production throughout the invention’s prime, and they were an important Swiss export during the second half of the 19th century. In total, an estimated 10,000 artisans were employed in the Swiss music box industry. Makers such as Nicole Frères, B.A. Bremond, Mermod Frères and Charles Paillard came on the scene, creating some of the most beautiful cylinder boxes ever devised. Many of the most prized examples incorporated automatons that danced along to a tune or even other instruments like drums, bells, mandolins and castanets.

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Enjoy the sights and sounds of even more extraordinary and delightful music boxes, orchestrions, automatons and bird boxes!

Hupfeld Phonoliszt-Violina Model B Music Cabinet

Gothic Musical Clock by Nicole Frères

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The history of automata and mechanical music is inextricably linked to humankind’s pursuit of knowledge: knowledge of science, knowledge of engineering and knowledge of our own humanity. Combining technical skill and artistry, automata, music boxes and singing bird boxes possess an intrinsic elegance and charm that continue to enchant onlookers to this day, even in an age of modern, on-demand entertainment. Human-shaped machines that convey the illusion of being alive, delightful little birds that plump their feathers and sing a tune, automatic music players that perform on par with a concert pianist...these captivating, ingenious and mysterious machines represent a remarkable history of invention, philosophical curiosity and popular culture that remains highly relevant. The Art of Sound: Automata and Mechanical Music explores these fascinating mechanisms and their lasting impact.

One of the most intimate forms of art, the miniature represents a compelling chapter in the history of art. While large-scale portraits served as a testament to one’s power and importance, the miniature had a far different purpose. Given as personal gifts to loved ones and bestowed as rewards for loyal supporters, they were meant to be kept close and private as a reminder of one’s love, faith or fealty. Today, they offer us a glimpse into a world that no longer exists — of courtiers and kings, of generals and revolutionaries — each rendered down to the most minute detail. Yet, the emotional impulses behind their creation remain familiar, and it is this dichotomy that makes them so captivating to contemporary viewers and collectors. 

Automata in the Age

of Englightenment

One of the most intimate forms of art, the miniature represents a compelling chapter in the history of art. While large-scale portraits served as a testament to one’s power and importance, the miniature had a far different purpose. Given as personal gifts to loved ones and bestowed as rewards for loyal supporters, they were meant to be kept close and private as a reminder of one’s love, faith or fealty. Today, they offer us a glimpse into a world that no longer exists — of courtiers and kings, of generals and revolutionaries — each rendered down to the most minute detail. Yet, the emotional impulses behind their creation remain familiar, and it is this dichotomy that makes them so captivating to contemporary viewers and collectors. 

Descartes view of animals as machines is a revelation into this progression: “Consider the body as a machine, which, having been made by the hands of God, is incomparably better coordinated and has much more admirable movement in it than any of those which could be invented by man.” Accordingly, these early androids were artificial creations that sought to mimic that which was made by God, possessing the appearance of a living being from their physical forms to their essential functions.

Automata and the Modern Era

The majority of these musical and mechanical figurines were influenced by the entertainment of their time and place. Paris during the Belle Époque was a whirlwind of lavish affairs and exotic amusements. The snake charmers and exotic dancers of the famed Folies-Bergère inspired a number of toymakers of the age, while the characters of the Nouveau Cirque and other circuses provided inspiration in the form of jugglers, animal trainers and clowns. These characters and more came to life in 19th-century drawing rooms thanks to the ingenuity and creativity of modern toymakers.

The majority of these musical and mechanical figurines were influenced by the entertainment of their time and place. Paris during the Belle Époque was a whirlwind of lavish affairs and exotic amusements. The snake charmers and exotic dancers of the famed Folies-Bergère inspired a number of toymakers of the age, while the characters of the Nouveau Cirque and other circuses provided inspiration in the form of jugglers, animal trainers and clowns. These characters and more came to life in 19th-century drawing rooms thanks to the ingenuity and creativity of modern toymakers.

Swiss Fusée Singing Bird Box by Frères Rochat. Circa 1830. M.S. Rau, New Orleans (Sold)

Pierre Jaquet-Droz, who had helped bring about the golden age of musical automata with his aforementioned Harpsichord Player, Writer and Draughtsman, created another mechanical marvel around 1785: the singing bird box. He built upon his knowledge of miniature musical mechanisms to develop a small box containing a tiny, singing automaton bird. At first, Jaquet-Droz created larger-scale caged singing birds that sung with the help of a miniature pipe organ, an instrument that required a separate pipe for each note. He successfully simplified this pipe-organ mechanism into a single pipe of variable pitch and further miniaturized it into a snuff box-sized form that could fit into the palm of one’s hand. Owing to their inherent charm and ingenious construction, these novel “noblemen’s toys” immediately enchanted 18th-century Europe’s high society.

Swiss Fusée Singing Bird Box by Frères Rochat. Circa 1830. M.S. Rau, New Orleans (Sold)

Their form was inspired, in part, by the snuff boxes, or tabatières (the French word for tobacco), that were then highly fashionable status symbols among European nobility. The word tabatière evolved to include bird boxes, and the term distinguishes them from their larger, caged counterparts. Bird boxes may closely resemble snuff boxes in terms of both size and artistry, but where they differ is in what they contain.

Like the automaton and the singing bird box, the first music boxes date to the 18th century, when inventors obsession with clockwork mechanisms was at its height. However, the concept of a machine that played music was first manifested in the carillon, a system of bells found in the towers of churches and government buildings used to indicate the time of day, church services or secular village events. Emerging in 1510 in Flanders, the carillon incorporated bells that spanned more than an octave and played from a rotating cylinder with stick-like keys corresponding to a particular bell. The earliest of these systems required a “ringer,” known as a carillonneur or “carillonist,” who played the keyboard and pedalboard, though later examples were automated.

Since carillons and large clocks both resided within the same church belfries throughout Europe, merging the two mechanisms with a giant automated cylinder was a natural progression. The large cylinder — called a drum — contained pins corresponding to a series of levers and hammers connected to bells. Turning the drum at an even tempo rang the bells, producing a melody and effectively achieving automated music for the first time.

Since carillons and large clocks both resided within the same church belfries throughout Europe, merging the two mechanisms with a giant automated cylinder was a natural progression. The large cylinder — called a drum — contained pins corresponding to a series of levers and hammers connected to bells. Turning the drum at an even tempo rang the bells, producing a melody and effectively achieving automated music for the first time.

The history of musical machines is inextricably linked to the history of clocks. The same highly complex clockwork mechanisms that powered the great timepieces of the 16th and 17th centuries informed the creation of later automata, singing bird boxes and music boxes. In fact, the link between the clock and the automaton is seen as early as 3000 B.C.E., when Egyptian water clocks were equipped with human figurines possessing the ability to strike a bell on the hour.

The Strasbourg astronomical clock located in the Cathédrale Notre-Dame of Strasbourg, Alsace, France, is exemplary of the close ties between the development of the clock and the automaton. First built in 1352-54, it was later reconstructed in 1571-74 and featured several mechanical figures, as well as a calendar, orrery and other astronomical complexities. The addition of the moving figures made the religious message of the timepiece and its setting more vivid. In one particularly poignant group of figures, the twelve apostles parade before Jesus, who is depicted blessing each in turn. Although the clock in place today dates to the 19th century, fragments of earlier clocks are kept in the Strasbourg Museum for Decorative Arts, including the 14th-century gilded rooster, which is considered the oldest preserved automaton in the world.

 As clockmakers of the 17th and 18th centuries invented increasingly more complex clockwork mechanisms, they turned their attention to other challenges in the form of automata, bird boxes and music boxes. These mechanical wonders soon became highly coveted objects of luxury entertainment for the wealthy classes, setting the stage for major technological developments to come.

The Age of Enlightenment (1685-1815) brought with it a new fascination for automata outside of their mere mechanics. During this period, European intellectuals embarked on a quest to uncover the secrets of the universe, which suddenly seemed within reach. Certain discoveries, such as the English physician William Harvey’s discovery of the circulation of the blood in 1628, suggested that the basic functions and mechanics of the human body were knowable. Naturally, mechanisms that imitated the human form and human activities emerged soon thereafter.

The Industrial Revolution brought change to all sectors of society, the toymaking industry included. Thanks to a rapidly expanding middle class, a growing group of clientele emerged who were able and willing to pay for novelty items such as automata. Firms such as Roullet et Decamps, Bontems and Théroude became the first mass producers of these charming “toys,” most of which contained a small cylinder music box that played as an automaton performed its motions.

Thanks to these early innovations, the history of the music box as we know it begins with Genevan watchmaker Antoine Favre's 1796 discovery of the cylinder music movement. These musical cylinders all operate on the same principle: steel pins or combs of different lengths are plucked as the cylinder rotates, producing a note with each pluck. The combs are tuned to the musical scale and arranged like a keyboard in order to produce a melody.

Shop the Collection

Shop the Music Box and Automata Collection

Shop the M.S. Rau mechanical music
and automata collection.


Shop the M.S. Rau mechanical music
and automata collection.


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