My wife and I went to a house warming this afternoon - friends of my in-laws had just moved, and we went up to Timonium. As it happens, Allen Ford, who used to work with my father in law, is a collector of old time musical devices. Player pianos and music boxes in particular, but he also had a number of old record players (and devices that came before record players). Here's an example - a player that takes metal disks with holes punched in it, and, by reading the holes, plays music:
It's hard to see in that shot (not a lot of quality in my camera phone), but there's a rather ornate picture on the back of that device. The disk is a metal plate with holes punched (like the ones you see in a player piano roll for a player piano). I asked Allen for a few details, and they were interesting. These machines were made in the late 19th century, reaching their zenith in the 1890's. The disks played for about a minute, and played instrumentals only - no voice. Very beautiful music though. The disks ranged up to a maximum of about 27 inches around - but Allen said that those were problematic, as the metal would flex during play and sometimes add discordant mechanical sounds. Here's a picture a much smaller device of the same ilk:
This one is a windup mechanic device - it's hard to tell in that picture, but the outer edge is serrated - it's all gear driven (as is the one above). Before this house warming, I had no idea that such devices even existed. The next generation of device, as it were, was this kind of cylinder player, from the first decade of the 20th century:
Those are cylinder boxes on the ground there. Allen showed my wife and I a couple - I should have taken another picture. One of the ones he took out was the delicate wax cylinder type - the other was a more durable celluloid cylinder. That latter one had a 200 lines per inch density, and I could barely make out the grooves on it. The wax cylinder had pretty clear ones.
Somehow, I neglected to take a picture of the reproducing piano with a roll on it - below are two shots - one of the pianos with a set of music boxes on it (including one of the Constellation, which rocks the ship in a sailing motion as it plays), and one of a Piano Roll Cabinet specifically made to hold the reproducing roles. A reproducing piano plays rolls which are paper tape recordings of an actual artist - we listened to Gershwin while I was there. Allen has been collecting these types of pianos since he was in his 20's (he's retired now) - he also puts them back in service for his collection, using his mechanical engineering background to guide him. Here are the shots:
Allen must have had a few hundred of those rolls around - there was another whole cabinet, plus more stacked up in various places. These pianos were being sold in the 1920's, and they were quite expensive - ranging from $1500 - $4000 (in mid-1920's dollars)! They made them between 1904 and 1941. They were being bought by affluent buyers who wanted music in the home - in much the same way that we buy stereo equipment now. I had a completely different idea based on a handful of old movies - I had some notion that these were used by bars and such, but I was mistaken - those were nicleodeons (a precursor to jukeboxes, more or less). The other interesting aspect of these things is that the player piano rolls I looked at used a binary code - us computer types were hardly the first ones down that path. Interestingly, there were three separate, incompatible systems - one binary, one using floating point, and one using something else entirely. Kind of like today's software - you had to buy the right kind of rolls for the kind of player you had.
Now, here's a lovely device - a music box made to look like a bird cage. When you wind it up, the bird sings, with the beak moving. It dates from around 1850, and is a magnificent piece of work:
Finally, there was a 1925 record player/radio - the record player still works, and the radio would as well - if only Allen could still get vacuum tubes for it. We asked him about how he goes about repairing a device like that, and it's pretty hard - he showed us a length of cloth covered rubber tubing he bought back in the 1970's, and he's glad he did - you just can't get that kind of authentic material anymore. It's kind of like repairing a classic car - you scour junkyards and yard sales, and advertise, and hope for the best - remanufacturing the original parts can get to be prohibitive. Anyhow, here's the record player front:
Those dusty bulbs there at the bottom are tubes (type 279, if I recall). Those are compatible replacements for the originals - Allen's got some working type 199's around for the radio that's built into the device, but those are even harder to find replacements for.
This was all fascinating stuff, and - since I'm working off memory here - I'm sure I got some of it wrong. I'm going to have to start carrying a small pad of paper around to take notes on, so that I can get details like these down). Fun stuff, and I could have spent a lot more time looking it all over.