More about the Tonophone

Previously: Things You Didn't Know About Wurlitzer #1: The first electric piano dates to 1899. 

Coin-operated, pneumatic, and capable of a ten-song playlist, the Tonophone was released by Wurlitzer in 1897. At the heart of the Tonophone was a cylinder that ran the width of the piano. This cylinder was covered in raised metal pins that sort of resemble staples of varying lengths. 

As the song played, the cylinder continuously rotated, and as it did, the pins would lift levers: one lever for each note. In turn, the levers opened valves that pneumatically operated the keys. 


The Tonophone was based on the barrel organ, which was invented over a hundred years earlier and used nearly the exact same mechanisms. Of course, instead of piano hammers, the cylinder of the barrel organ operated small organ pipes. More significantly, it wasn't automatic, but was instead operated by hand-crank. 

Another thing: the barrel organ had a pretty checkered reputation. In the nineteenth century, street musicians ("organ grinders") would cart them up and down the street, playing songs for tips. Sometimes, the organ grinder would be accompanied by a small monkey, who was trained to carry a little cup and solicit money. 

Since the barrel organ was operated by a hand crank, it required almost no musical training to play it. That's not to say that operating a barrel organ required no skill whatsoever. The rhythm of the song depended on the speed and consistency of the user's cranking. Barrel organs also required periodic maintenance to keep them in tune. 

It's hard to tell exactly how enthusiastic the barrel organ operator was about music. Many organ grinders were poor immigrants who needed to support their families, and playing the barrel organ was a job that didn't require any particular abundance of skill or connections. All you needed was a monkey (available for sale locally), a barrel organ (which could be rented for $4 per month), and, in some areas, a performance license. 

The often dubious quality of music wasn't the only problem people had with organ grinders. Some thought that the solicitation of tips was essentially begging. Others were offended by the sight of teen girls dancing in public to the organ grinder's music. New Yorkers were upset that crowds of listeners could grow large enough to block traffic. Buggy drivers in Illinois blamed organ grinders for spooking their horses. Sometimes the monkeys attacked people, and rumor had it that some organ grinders taught their animals not just how to beg, but to steal. 

On the other hand, the piano had a sterling pedigree. It was an orchestral instrument capable of expressing the highest forms of art music. Young ladies were expected to learn piano as part of a well-rounded education. The barrel organ was a novelty that belonged in the street, but the piano had a place in every genteel household. 


So when, in the 1890s, Wurlitzer started a partnership with barrel organ manufacturer Eugene DeKleist, it wasn't for the opportunity to add barrel organs to the Wurlitzer lineup. As a brand, Wurlitzer sought to be associated with the kind of well-made yet inexpensive musical instruments that appealed to families of the growing middle-class. They were also entering the automatic coin-operated market, which at the time was dominated by "music boxes," a kind of early record player. Barrel organs did not fit either facet of the company. 

In the course of negotiating the same of some trumpets DeKleist had leftover from the installation of a merry-go-round, he mentioned to Wurlitzer that he was working on an automatic piano. It relied on the barrel organ's cylinder mechanism, but it would be electro-mechanical instead of crank-powered. Wurlitzer funded the prototype, and, two years later, the Tonophone was ready for production. 

The Tonophone allowed Wurlitzer to reach the growing consumer class from a different angle. First of all, Wurlitzer insisted that the Tonophone be coin-operated. One nickel would buy two plays of a song that the user could choose from a dial. Then, Wurlitzer advertised the Tonophone to restaurants, cafes, and bars, declaring that establishments with a Tonophone would enjoy a near-immediate 150%, or 300%, or 700% return on the purchase price, one nickel at a time. Judging by the huge popularity of the Tonophone and its successors, Wurlitzer's claims probably weren't too far off the mark. 

More importantly, automatic music-making devices gave Wurlitzer limitless opportunities for advertising. Although restaurants had to purchase the Tonophone outright (as opposed to jukeboxes, which were usually licensed from the manufacturer), Wurlitzer seized the opportunity to cover the machines in branding. As one sign proudly declared: "Drop 5 cents in the slot for a Real Concert. There's a Wurlitzer instrument here." 


Today, stores and restaurants go to great lengths to make the source of any ambient music invisible. Speakers are hidden in the ceiling, or painted to blend into walls, or tucked into the landscaping disguised as rocks. That's because, by now, we're used to the idea of the disembodied song. Music doesn't require a human source anymore. Thanks to the digital revolution, it doesn't even require an instrument. 

In a retail setting, music that can't be traced to any particular source enhances the escapism of shopping and dining. It creates a story for the brand to piggyback on. It helps you forget that you're not, in fact, the main player in your own personal biopic, complete with your own personal musical score. 

But, at the turn of the century, venues with automatic instruments wanted to show off their expensive pieces of technology. In addition, manufacturers like Wurlitzer were hyper-aware that their inventions could be seen as fads and novelties. So, they styled their automatic instruments to appear serious and grand and worthy of playing fine music to discerning people. In the early years of the 20th century, automatic instruments were often incredibly ornate, covered in detailed wood carvings and Renaissance-style scenes of angels and blue skies. They were also enormous, built to dominate the room. 

As the first automatic instrument, the Tonophone was comparatively minimalist. It resembled an ordinary upright piano, except for one detail: glass pale exposed the hammer mechanisms inside. Spectators could watch the piano at work and marvel at the ghostlike way that it seemed to play itself. Without a performer, the technology of the piece became the spectacle. 

Immensely popular, the Tonophone paved the way for the player piano, the jukebox, and even radio. Music had already been enhanced by technology (see: the acoustic piano itself, invented to improve upon the harpsichord), but this was one of the first examples of how electronics could eliminate one variable that had always been required: a live performer.

Further Reading

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