Wednesday, June 28, 2017



What Is It?
Mills Violano Virtuoso Home Model which plays a violin piano duet.   First available for sale in 1912.

How Rare Is It?
It is thought that there were about 4000 of the single violin versions made.

How Does It Work?
The music is contained on a paper roll with holes punched in it, similar to a player piano roll.   The punched holes are "read" by a unique electrical system, where thin wires "feel" for the holes and make electrical contact which energizes a solenoid, which performs a function of playing a note on the piano or violin.

What Is It Worth?   What Did It Cost?
Sold for $2500 in 1925.   Most recent single violin units have sold from $20,000 to $60,000.

Where Has It Been?
We have little factual verified information about this machine's history.   It is alleged that Jake bought it at a sheriff's sale after a house of ill repute was closed in Warren, Ohio.

Background Information
The Mills Novelty Company built a series of gambling machines in their Chicago  location.   The violin portion of this machines was first built as a stand alone device, which was to be accompanied by a piano player.   It became obvious that it would be more practical to include the piano in the machine and that was done.   They built machines with up to three violins incorporated.

One was present on the Titanic when it sank.

President Taft saw one in Chicago in 1911 and was so impressed he supported a joint resolution of Congress declaring it one of the 8 great inventions of the decade.

What Were the Eight Greatest Inventions in the 1900 to 1910 Decade as Voted by Congress?
In 1911 Mr. H. C. Armstrong, Principal Examiner of the US Patent Office, was authorized to compile a list of the eight most meritorious ideas of the previous decade.   His list, in no particular order was:

-Steam Turbine Electric Power Generation and Distribution
-Electric Light Generation
-The Calorimiter (basis for color photography)
-The Telegraph
-International Harvesting Machine
-The Violano-Virtuoso

Wednesday, June 21, 2017



This is a Nelson-Wiggen style 4X orchestrion.   It could be set up to play either the 4X or G paper roll.  It differs from many contemporary designs using a single stroke marimba rather than a reiterating one.   The Nelson Wiggen machines were some of the most complex vacuum operated machines of the era and some of their critics said if there was a simple way to do something they would not even consider doing it that way.

This was one of the more popular instruments produced by Nelson-Wiggen, but how many have survived is unknown.

The music is contained on a paper roll with holes punched in it, which normally contains 10 songs.   The punched holes are "read" by a vacuum control system, that in turn opens valves allowing the compressed air to enter the selected pipes and play the music.   The vacuum and compressed air are suppled by wood and leather bellows pumps driven by a crankshaft, which is turned by the electric motor mounted in the bottom of the instrument.

Our machine plays a ten tune 4X roll, which controls a Piano, Mandolin Rail, Trap Drum, Marimba & Triangle.

Built about 1925, its location is unknown until it was owned by Jake, who got it in parts someplace in New York State and reassembled it.   It played for several years after it came to us, but got weaker as time went on.   We did some patch work to keep it playing, but by 2012 it needed serious work, so we did a fairly complete repair, including case refinishing.   In the process, we found Jake had bypassed several control function, which we restored to the original condition.

Background information:

Oscar Nelson and Peder Wiggen, worked as engineers and factory supervisors for the J.P. Seeburg Company, until striking out on their own and forming the Nelson Wiggen Co. in Chicago in 1922.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

An Early Cremona

This is a Cremona style C Nickelodeon, serial number 17268, built in Chicago by the Marquette Piano Company about 1905.   Cremona is an Italian town famous for violin and other stringed instrument production.   Perhaps this is why Marquette used this name for their piano based instruments.

This was one of the earlier Cremona styles and was also sold by the Piano Player Mfg. Co. as Rhapsodist style B.   Thus quite a few may survive in collections today. 

The music is contained on a paper roll with holes punched in it, designated as style A, which normally contains 10 songs.   The punched holes are "read" by a vacuum control system, which controls the piano and mandolin rail.    The vacuum is supplied by wood and leather bellows pumps driven by a crankshaft, which is turned by the electric motor mounted in the bottom of the instrument.   The roll drive is also located in this area and is a well designed system, more durable than many of the competitors.

We have no information prior to 2011, when this instrument was donated to us by Joan Hick, who donated it as the executrix of her brother Robert Sabo's estate.   Robert had started the restoration before he died and Joan wanted the work to be completed, with the instrument available to be viewed and played for the public.   The machine was delivered in many pieces and it was not until 2012 that Joan found the original stained glass and delivered it to us.   All the piano action parts beyond the 65 notes played by the A roll were missing and had to be reproduced from our "junk pile".    Most of the case had been stripped for refinishing, which we did not complete.   The carriage lamps were missing and a grant from one of our Board members paid for their reproduction.

We completed the necessary work and moved it to the first floor in 2013.

Background Information:
The Marquette Piano Co. started in Chicago building piano actions but about 1905 expanded to building complete instruments, thus becoming one of the first American firms in this industry.   Until 1907,  J. P. Seeburg worked for them until leaving to found his own company.

Sold under the Cremona name, their major production was between 1905 and 1920.   They built high quality machines with interior parts highly finished even though not visible, using a lot of mahogany for the wood parts.