Vintage Marshall music machines are displayed by the Friends in the Marshall Steam Museum. Those who tour Auburn Heights mansion experience the angelic sounds of the Regina Music Box. If you haven’t heard the Regina, check out this YouTube LINK of the Auburn Heights Regina being played.

The Regina Music Box was developed in Germany in 1889 by Gustave Brachhausen and Paul Riessner of the Symphonion Company. A few years later, in 1892, they relocated their music box business to the United States forming the Regina Music Box Company. Collectors have determined an estimated 100,000 units were shipped between 1894 and 1919. Some units automatically changed discs sequencing through a series of discs automatically.

While the Regina Music Box generates musical tones by plucking the tuned tines of one or two metal combs, an earlier design of music box relied on reed organ technology. These mass-produced units, manufactured by the Autophone Company, became known as ‘corn cob organs’. Where and/or how did the moniker ‘corn cob organ’ come into common parlance?

The Cane plant has been used for thousands of years to fashion reeds to produce a musical tone when a thin sliver of the plant’s stalk is set to vibration. Any material, when formed thin enough and of specific proportions, can be made to create a tone by setting it to vibrating mechanically. The pump organ, also known as a reed organ, is an example of an instrument were a series of brass reeds, each tuned to resonate at a specific pitch, produce music. In the 19th century, millions of reed organs were produced and found use in homes, churches, and other settings where hand-pumped pipe organs were not practical.

In the late 1880s, the Autophone Company in Ithaca, NY developed the ‘Gem Roller Organ”. These inexpensive hand-cranked music boxes were sold through Sears & Roebuck Company’s catalog and various retail outlets. Consisting of twenty, tuned, brass, free-vibrating, reeds (the notes starting with D below middle-C were: D G A B C C# D E F# G G# A B C C# D E F# G A) providing nearly three octaves of tone. The roller organs were tuned to the ‘scientific pitch’ of A=430 (concert pitch or A=440 in common use today wasn’t introduced until the 1920s and became standardized in 1936).

When the unit’s crank is turned, a set of bellows in the base of the unit generates a slight vacuum in an enclosure above the bellows. The reeds, mounted in a wooden block in two rows of ten, make up one side of an enclosure that is maintained at a vacuum from the bellows. When a valve external to the enclosure opens, atmospheric air rushes in the opened valve-hole to a small chamber beneath a reed The air continues past the reed to the enclosure under vacuum. This quick-moving airflow rushes around a narrow slit between the reed and the reed’s holder causing the reed to vibrate at its resonant frequency producing a tone.

Instead of a tin disk similar to what the Regina employs, the Gem Roller Organ relies on a 6-3/8” by 1-3/4” wooden cylinder held by a pair of shafts mounted in a cast frame. The wooden cylinder is encircled with 0.036” diameter pins standing 0.1” off the surface such that the pins push open the valves as the cylinder rotates about its axis to open and close the valves. As the cylinder rotates when the unit is cranked, a cylinder surface revolution of 0.1” opens and closes a valve. Pins sequentially spaced at 0.1” keeps a note playing until the last pin passes the valve playing. As the cylinder rotates it also moves axially requiring the pins be arranged in a spiral rotation about the cylinder’s surface. A song plays for forty seconds requiring three complete revolutions of the wooden cylinder. Click this LINK to hear a restored Gem Roller Organ playing.

The wooden cylinder, or ‘roller’ as the instructions referred to them, and the spiral rows of pins determining which valves should be open and for how long, gives the appearance of a corn cob and hence these music boxes soon were referred to a ‘corn cob organs’. Production in the late 1890s and early 1900s exceeded 10,000 a month with Sears selling them for $3.45 in 1902. Collectors have identified over 1,000 different song cobs available. Cobs sold for $0.18 each through Sears. A patented machine made the cobs in batches of twelve by duplicating a master song cylinder. In 2002 several collectors constructed an automated machine to produce new cobs relying on computer technology and modern mechanical designs.