Friday, April 04, 2008

Before the iPod, there was...

I gawked at the goodies over at Batterman's the other day with Patty. Wow, what an ingriguing variety of antiques and collectibles. Especially this music making machine for milady's parlor, circa the 1890s.

The Regina music box works off metal platters with holes -- just like the old key punch cards for earlier IBMs (or, if you really want to go back further in history, the punched cards used by Jacquard looms as of 1801.)

Since this was a quality piece of household furniture, it included storage room for a proper collection of platters.

Another, less prepossessing music box, this one driven by rolls of punched paper. A familiar sight if you've ever seen music rolls for a player piano. I was surprised at just how big the holes were in this music roll, however.
These automated predecessors to the iPod reminded me of a small corner of family history. My grandfather's brother founded the Mills Novelty Company in Chicago before the turn of the century (the 20th, that is). Tho Mortie didn't invent the slot machine, he managed to acquire the patents and become a major manufacturer of one-armed bandits. But that was in addition to his own inventions -- a splendid assortment of coin operated automatic music machines for the saloon business. I found this Mills machine tonight over at eBay, where it had just sold for $41,000, even though it was an as-is sale.

The Violano-Virtuoso, an automatic violin with a robotic piano for accompaniment. Many years ago in Chicago, a friend and I found a saloon out Milwaukee Avenue whose proprietor collected antique coin-op machines. The violin machine in that particular collection did not feature an actual instrument body, but merely a string plus playing mechanism. The tunes depended, again, upon punched paper rolls. Made by Mills.

Note the claim on that name plate. Today's marketing men don't have nearly the chutzpah of their early predecessors.

17 comments:

OmegaMom said...

Now that is splendid!

C. Marie Byars said...

Nice posting. Really like your previous 2 on the bikers and the creek. Posted some new Marx Brothers: the eternal question "Why a duck?"

Anonymous said...

If the tariff for one play on the Violano Virtuoso was 5 cents, as is suggested by the slot--the music better have been pretty good.

A few visits back ('98) Enid and I saw a Mills slot machine in one of the antique emporioums in Prescott.

Hermano

Anonymous said...

Granny J
If your grandfather's brother was Mortimer B. Mills, then we are cousins as Mortimer B. Mills. b. 1845 Sparta, Ontario, Canada, is my second great grandfather. Mortimer's father was Stephen B. Mills. Besides Mortimer he had three sons who lived to maturity, Earnest, Stephen, and Edgar. Are you related to one of them?

Jim Otton
Lakewood, Colorado
jim2154@aol.com

Anonymous said...

Gorgeous photos! If only your blog had sound files! What a neat story about your great-uncle.

It's almost 9:30 Sat. morning, and my sister called. She's driving to the Courthouse to see John McCain speak on the Courthouse steps.

Wondering if you'll have some photos and a post about his visit....?

~Anon in AV

Granny J said...

Dotter -- I kinda liked the price on that machine!

c-marie -- good to see you again!

bro -- well, the machine I heard back in that Chicago saloon sure didn't have that swoonable sound of a gypsy violin; more like an uninspired beginner but definitely in tune.

Bingo, Jim! Not one, but three (3 -- count 'em --3) cousins contacted: my dotter, in Alaska, & my bro with his branch of the family in Perth Western Australia.

anon av -- I got up to late to do the big McCain rally; besides, I really don't do Big Crowds well. Probably some interesting shots that I'm missing, but...

worldphotos4 said...

Classic photos. Lots of history there.

Granny J said...

steve -- much history, yes indeed, including the family! Now for the interesting find -- there is a web site for the Mills Novelty Co. where you can obtain both a digital interface and many songs to play (digitally) on your $41K Violano Virtuoso.

worldphotos4 said...

GJ the site is amazing. It it still opertated and owned by relatives of yours?

RV-boondocker-explorer said...

It's fun to think how silly we moderns are to think that the word, digital, belongs to our era alone.

Your blog today points out how it really isn't a new idea at all.

Granny J said...

steve -- I checked a bit further & came up with this history of the Mills Novelty Co., along with more data on the Violano. Seems the inventor wasn't my great uncle, after all, but one of his employees. It doesn't sound like the current Mills Novelty Co. has anything to do with the family. In fact, I'd bet that the name had gone dead & this was a chance to revive it...

boonie -- In his novels comprising The Baroque Cycle, Neal Stephenson pretty much credits the idea of digital computing to von Leibnitz. A good read, BTW, if you like SF.

meggie said...

I loved visiting these old musical inventions. I love the sounds they make. There is a huge one in the Museum in Christchurch, & my children always had to purchase a penny to play it, when we visited.

Granny J said...

ah, meggie -- a penny, that is more like it. But if you wanted a violin-like sound, a nickel a pop it was!

Melanie A. said...

Astonishing that the Violano-Virtuoso wasn't designated one of the eight best-sounding inventions...

Granny J said...

Hah, Melanie -- read my description of the sound up above...

Christopher C. Mills said...

The claim on the plate about the US government designation is *not* marketing hype. It is an accurate designation from its time by, I believe, the patent office. It did indeed gain some notoriety in its time-- so much so that The Mills Novelty Company designed a unique one for the Smithsonian.

millsspam@viawest.net

Granny J said...

Are you, by any chance, another distant cousin? Thanks for the info about the plaque!

 
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