From the 14th century, church bells were sometimes automated. The principle was extended to clock chimes and, by the 17th century, to pocket watches. The first music boxes appeared in about 1810. These were plain wooden boxes enclosing a cylinder mechanism.
The basic mechanism of these early music boxes was a rotating cylinder with a pattern of raised pins which plucked the teeth of a fine steel comb to produce the musical notes. A single rotating cylinder could have up to eight tunes and some music boxes came with up to six interchangeable cylinders, giving a total of 48 tunes.
From the 1820s to the 1880s, increasingly finely decorated music boxes, inlaid with rare timbers, brass, mother-of-pearl or enamel, were produced mainly in Switzerland. From the middle of the 19th century, leading manufacturers used multiple steel combs to give richer harmonies.
In the 1880s, the problem of the limited repertoire of cylinder music boxes was solved by the introduction of the disc music box. Interchangeable metal disks replaced the cylinder. This meant that the music box had to be much larger, becoming a piece of furniture, sometimes doubling as a side table or desk.
Music box discs could be mass-produced and, so, were much cheaper to manufacture than cylinders. Less expensive timbers were used and transfer printing replaced inlay decoration. The leading manufacturer of these music boxes was Polyphon and this type of music box is often called a “polyphon” regardless of the manufacturer.
The invention of the shellac gramophone record by Berliner in 1896 signaled the end of the development of the music box which became completely superseded by the beginning of the First World War.