Oli Freke

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Musical Museum, Kew.

Visited this excellent museum last weekend.

The 1850’s equivalent of an iPod: musical box


This is a 185o’s Swiss-made barrel driven music box. Along with the usual ‘comb teeth’ tines, it also has an organ, bells (hammered by little brass wasps) and a little snare drum. The museum’s director freely admitted that the organ drowned out the other instruments and could only play four (non-changeable) tunes.

It would have cost £50,000 in today’s money.

Four tunes!!!

It’s violin stretching time!


It’s a bit difficult to see from this picture, but it’s a coin operated music machine that automatically plays a violin accompanied by a piano. The violin reminded me of nothing so much as the Dalek being tortured in the last series of Dr Who. It’s strings have been lifted away from the body and a complicated system of levers press the strings at the right points to get the desired note, whilst rotating celluloid disks are held against the string to sound it. The little disks have two speeds and the strings are further made unhappy by being stretched back and forth to give two speeds of vibrato.

The overall effect was surprisingly good and has the advantage of being able to play all four strings at once.

Not a Record Player


At the same time as gramophone records were being developed, music boxes with disks instead of barrels were also immensely popular. Their advantage over the £50kSwiss models was that they had interchangeable disks and could thus play more than 4 songs. Owners of the Swiss box claimed theirs ‘had better sound quality’ and ‘why would anyone need more than four light classical songs played by bells hammered by brass wasps?’. Those people went onto to buy Zunes for similar reasons.

Gramophonic Excitations


Before electricity gramophones were clockwork and the sound had to be reproduced by careful use of a big horn.

They were also recorded by shouting down a big horn to cut the disks. This is roughly as convenient as syncing a Zune to a PC and slightly less absurd than ‘squirting’ an expirable mp3 to another Zune user.

(I don’t know why I’ve suddenly got it in for Zunes. I guess this all reminds me of pointless format wars which are almost obselete the moment they’re won.)

The Wurlitzer


They even have a Wurlitzer rising through the auditorium floor. It’s the 40’s equivalent of a sampler. Every sound under the sun required to accompany silent films – it’s based around a full size pipe organ with meaty 16″ sub-bass pipes and tiny 2″ pipes that I couldn’t flippin’ hear they were that high!!. Not only that, it has xlyophones, marimbas, drums, waterphone, and sound effects like waves on a seashore, sirens, woodblock and a hilariously unconvincing horse trot created with a coconut.

Typically, the idea for the Wurlitzer was invented by an Englishman, but the unimaginative English at the time weren’t interested and he had to go to America to realise his vision.

I highly recommend a trip to the museum – the above is a tiny tiny selection of their player pianos, theremins, music boxes, orchestions, and much more.