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Laurie Niles

1920s Player Violin: Talk about Mechanics!

July 6, 2011 at 6:21 AM

I'd heard of player pianos, which can play without the aid of human fingers. But a player violin? Without even robot hands?

Yes, Toyota, it was done before, and patented in 1912. Going on information given to me by my friend and fellow violinist Liz Blake, I found the proof Tuesday at Solvang Antique Center, in Solvang, California, a small town ("the Danish capital of America") located in the wine country near Santa Barbara.

The antique store had on display not one, but two "Violano Virtuoso" player violins, both made around 1925 by Mills Novelty Co. of Chicago. A little sign from an exposition boasts "Designated by the United States government as one of the eight greatest inventions of the decade," presumably that decade being the 1920s! Before I go any further, just check it out: (extra credit points go to the person who can name that tune; I can't!)


Below is a picture of the bowing mechanism, which is comprised of four rollers, one for each string. Each roller is pushed down onto its string as needed by a medal rod attached to a spring mechanism.


Violano Virtuoso bowing mechanism

This is the "fingerboard," though no fingers are involved, as you can see:

Violano Virtuoso fingerboard mechanism

Instead are scores of little metal pinchers that come up from underneath to squeeze the string and change the pitch. They appear to be placed in half-step intervals. Also, notice the four weights behind the scroll. I'm pretty sure they have something to do with the production of vibrato, as I could see them shaking, vibrato-like, as the mechanism was playing. Behind everything are the hammers to a 44-note piano.

The entire mechanism rests elegantly, if humongously, in a mahogany cabinet. Its current price tag is $79,000.

Eat your heart out, Toyota, you weren't first. But I think we humans still have them both licked!

From Allyson Lyne
Posted on July 6, 2011 at 7:39 AM

 I think that music might be a duo for soprano and tenor from an opera, possibly Donizetti.  Maybe another opera lover can pin it down more precisely!  I remember seeing a functioning automatic violin in a case when visiting some sort of museum near the Seattle space needle about 35 years ago.  But it didn't have a piano, and I don't recall it having such complex mechanisms for fingering - might have been an earlier model that could only play one note at a time.

From Kenny Choy
Posted on July 6, 2011 at 9:46 AM

I think the tune comes from the sextet "Chi mi frena in tal momento" from Donizetti's "Lucia di Lammermoor". Saint-Lubin wrote a virtuoso solo version on this tune for violin.

From marjory lange
Posted on July 6, 2011 at 2:23 PM

 I saw/heard one of those back in the early 60's.  I was just starting violin myself and had a great chat with the owner.  He said the biggest problem was keeping strings on it (he didn't know about synthetics--if there even were any then {I didn't know about them, either, if there were}).

I was most impressed by the bow--his violin had a circular one, so there were no audible changes.  But it could play a kind of spiccato, even so.

From Kathryn Hoffer
Posted on July 6, 2011 at 6:00 PM

I recently saw another example of this amazing machine, in mint condition, in the beautiful new Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix (  The museum is an incredible collection of instruments from around the world.  Allow several hours for a thorough visit!

From Mathias B
Posted on July 6, 2011 at 8:24 PM

From Laurie Niles
Posted on July 6, 2011 at 10:42 PM

 Mathias, I must say that I much prefer the version to which you have linked, lol! (Leon de Saint-Lubin - Fantasie on the sextet from Donizetti`s Lucia di Lammermoor solo violine Vasa Prihoda) I knew you guys would come through with the answer! :)

From Mary Haarmann
Posted on July 6, 2011 at 10:51 PM

A kitschy southwest Wisconsin tourist attraction called The House on the Rock was where I first saw something like this. Haven't been there in years but they had quite a collection of music machines and other oddities. Not far from the Frank Lloyd Wright complex: a day trip from Madison!

From Amanda Riley
Posted on July 6, 2011 at 11:11 PM

That is truly incredible! I can't believe some of these extremely complex machines like this came out in the 20's, maybe it's just because I am most definately not mechanically inclined!

From Juergen L. Hemm
Posted on July 8, 2011 at 7:51 AM

Fascinating! A few mechanically played violins are also on display at Siegfried's Museum of Mechanical Musical Instruments in Rüdesheim, Germany, along with many other "programmable" musical instruments. The mechanism shown was not as sophisticated as the one that started the thread.

From Asher Wade
Posted on July 8, 2011 at 10:22 AM

 Somehow, ...well yeah, I think I "get it".  

Lemme me guess, {duh!}, these things didn't quite 'catch-on'; in that, I haven't been seeing them mass-produced & for sale in Wal-Mart(!).

Think I'll stick with my $195ad, ...which "is" for sale at Wal-Mart  {:~))  and work out my own fingering with Maestro Vasa as my guide (thanks Mathias B. for the link!).

From Jason Hurwitz
Posted on July 11, 2011 at 3:55 AM

Having just visited the House on the Rock (just under an hour away from Madison in southwestern Wisconsin) this past week, I'm glad to see that @Mary Haarmann mentioned the automated instruments that are there. Most of them are pretty rundown, and, while they move properly, the sound now seems to come from midi tracks played through speakers. Very cool inventions, though, and there were LOTS of them.

Below is an example of one of them, but there were instruments from violins to basses to banjos to pianos to bottles ... even a full symphony orchestra!



Below is a cello, guitar, drum, mandolin, and I think there's a violin in there somewhere as well.

From Marilyn Pipkin
Posted on July 11, 2011 at 4:12 AM

I was glad to hear from Jason Hurwitz's comment that the player violins and band-in-a-box  players are still at the House on the Rock.  I had the privilege of hearing them before the sound was canned.  That sound wasn't bad, but awfully out of tune, as the instruments were not kept up even in 1975.  Faculty members at the Symphony School of America tuned the instruments when given a tour of the museum that year, but I don't know if they have been tuned since.  I remember one that had 6 violins placed upright in a circle with a hoop lined with horsehair rotating around the instruments which moved in and out to touch the horsehair band. Does anyone know if that one is still there?

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