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date: 22 November 2019

Mechanical instrument (USA)locked

  • Edmond T. Johnson


A musical instrument that features some amount of mechanical automation, typically enabling it to perform music from previously programmed media. Such instruments vary in their degree of autonomy, ranging from devices that can perform virtually independently (provided with a source of power), to those which require a significant amount of human control. See Player piano for discussion of barrel pianos, player pianos, and reproducing pianos.

Although mechanical instruments have ancient origins, it was only in the 18th century that automated musical devices became a prominent cultural force. During this period, a variety of mechanical instruments were developed in Europe, ranging from small hand-cranked barrel organs to sophisticated musical clocks. The music box was introduced in its modern form around the turn of the 19th century. The development of the musical comb—consisting of carefully-tuned tongues cut from a thin steel plate—allowed for even palm-sized devices to offer a range of several octaves. Swiss watchmaker Antoine Favre was the first to combine the musical comb with a pinned metal barrel, producing a compact and reliable mechanism that could be installed in watches, snuff-boxes, or other small curios. Barrel organs were among the earliest mechanical instruments introduced to the United States. These organs, which typically lacked keyboards, played music from interchangeable barrels (cylinders), each of which typically contained several selections. While barrel organs were most commonly found on urban streets in the service of itinerant organ-grinders, some provided music for homes and churches. Such instruments were in use in several of the California missions as early as ...

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