The Violano-Virtuoso, Electric Pianos, and Orchestras
Between 1900 and 1930 the Mills Novelty Company, of Chicago, Illinois, was famous for its varied line of gambling machines, and to a lesser extent its arcade equipment, but beginning about 1905 it quickly gained fame for its superbly constructed line of music roll operated automatic musical instruments. The Mills Automatic Virtuoso, an automatically played violin, was introduced circa 1905-1906, and evolved by 1911 into the popular Violano-Virtuoso, an automatically played violin with piano accompaniment. In 1912 the "straight" piano was upgraded to a symmetrical one, with the bass strings located in the middle. The symmetrical structure balanced the string loading on the cast iron piano plate and supposedly produced a piano that required less tuning.
Notwithstanding the ingenuity and uniqueness of an automatic violin playing machine, probably the most outstanding feature of the Mills Novelty Company line of automatic musical instruments is that they were all electrically powered and electromechanically operated throughout. In the bottom of each machine was an AC-DC electro-mechanical converter, manufactured by Sandell (Henry K. Sandell was the inventor of the Automatic Virtuosa), or less commonly one made by Holtzer-Cabot, or the General-Electric Company. In sharp contrast, virtually all other commercially viable coin pianos and orchestrions of the time were pneumatically operated, with feeder pumps cranked by hand, clockwork motors powered by weights, a water motor, or more commonly an electric motor. In Mills instruments small electric motors and electromagnets of various configurations took the place of the vacuum or wind-pressure powered motor pneumatics, negating the need for the relatively cumbersome feeder pumps and complicated valve chests common in other brands of automatic musical instruments. In fact, Mills specifically noted that their electrically operated instruments were "not only more compact but less complicated than that of the player-piano. Consequently it is less likely to get out of order--and if is should, any electrician can easily repair it as all parts are accessible."
In the violin playing machines each string of the violin is played by a separate, small diameter rosined celluloid "bow," each bow-wheel connected to a common speed-controlled electric motor. Fingering of each string was accomplished by tiny electromechanical steel fingers, which "fingered" the string at the appropriate place so as to produce the desired musical pitch. So ingenious was the Violano-Virtuoso that it was designated by the U.S. Government as one of the eight greatest inventions of the decade. The Violano-Virtuoso is probably the best known of the Mills automatic musical machines, there being about 4,000 units made, housed in several different case styles, manufactured between 1911 and 1930. Thus, because of the large number produced, the Mills Violano-Virtuoso is relatively common in collections today with over 1,500 known to have survived. But while the Violano-Virtuoso was by far the popularity leader, Mills made other mechanical music machines of equal quality, although they enjoyed a lesser degree of recognition. The following is a list of Mills instruments, grouped for this author's convenience:
And on the exceptionally rare to probably non-existent side, there were several other violin based instruments manufactured by the Mills Novelty Company for which none are know to exist today. They are:
This page continues with detailed descriptions of various technical and/or mechanical features, which are deemed important for a truly useful understanding of both the database reports and to effectively fill in the Survey Reporting Form. The actual database reports and survey form can be accessed in the Distribution of Database Information section and then clicking on the large Download button at the bottom of this page.
It is unknown has many special case designs Mills might have constructed. However, there are at least two special designs that are easily documented. The first is a Mills DeLuxe (Double) Violano-Virtuoso made for shipboard use, and equipped with a small two-manual keyboard. The keyboard can be pushed under the violin shelf and concealed by the bottom doors when not in use. Another unusual feature of this particular instrument is the string tensioning method. Instead of the usual weights, tensioning is achieved by an arrangement of springs and solenoid magnets. This instrument is pictured on page 521 in the Encyclopedia of Automatic Musical Instruments, by Q. David Bowers. This instrument is not known to exist today.
The second unusual design documented is also for a Mills DeLuxe (Double) Violano-Virtuoso, housed in what is perhaps best described as an ornate gothic case with a delicately carved top gallery. The wood veneer is red mahogany, and instead of glass framed top side doors, each door consists of an intricately carved motif with a cloth screen behind it. Fortunately this instrument has survived to this day and is in immaculate condition, occupying a treasured position in a major mechanical music collection. Little is known of the instrument's provenance, except that it has survived and is now a prized possession.
Although relatively unknown and rare to collectors today, in the mid to late 1920s Mills Novelty Company made ornate galleries that sat atop a Violano-Virtuoso to advertise it and beckon coins. One such example for the export trade can be seen by clicking on the image thumbnail at right. These special top galleries included a fancy wooden framework with a wood veneer and finish that matched that of the Violano-Virtuoso on which it was to sit. Inside the frame was a colorful and easy to read advertising poster, with large lettering and a conspicuous hand pointing to the place where the customer was to insert a coin. It is unknown has many of these advertising galleries were made, or how many different languages might have been supported. Judging from the example shown here, at least some of them seem to have been intended for the British foreign export market.
It is thought that there are at least three variations of the symmetrical piano used by Mills. The smallest size 44-note piano was used in the Baby Grand Violano-Virtuoso model, while the Concert Grand and DeLuxe Violano-Virtuoso models used a larger scale 44-note symmetrical piano for a second variation. A third variation with 63 notes was used for the Magnetic Expression Piano, Race Horse Piano, and the Piano Orchestra.
An electrical schematic showing the early relay/resistor piano expression control can be accessed by clicking on the thumbnail image at right. This expression system is found in early instruments, along with the independently controlled first hammer rail solenoid arrangement shown in the numbered list below. Thus, the relay/resister arrangement and the piano hammer rail complimented each other in bringing about artistic piano expression. Piano note magnets are 500-600Ω each in machines where all piano magnets are identical, or they are 300-450Ω for the lower notes and 500-600Ω for treble notes. The piano expression resistor is 1200Ω over its entire length, with 17 taps (about 70Ω from one tap to the next). When setting up the resistor, setting each bus wire about 400Ω from the center wire provides a good starting point, and then moving the bus wires away from center if the soft playing level is too loud (or closer if it’s too soft). Even if the piano note loudness drops when the piano plays more notes at once, the system can be adjusted to produce effective expression without dropping any piano notes.
There are three types of hammer rail control, from early to late:
The staccato is a violin function that causes the bow to leave the violin string while leaving the finger engaged. This is critical function for many musical passages, because if the violin bow wheel and finger both leave the string at the same moment, the vibrational frequency of the string immediately drops to the open string pitch, until the tone dies away a split second later. This musical limitation is overcome during rapid musical passages of short (staccato) notes by the staccato system, which is actuated by feeder brush 3.
The staccato system used in early machines and double violin models employs a relay, which is connected to and is energized by the staccato circuit. The closed relay contacts shunt around each bow magnet, causing the bows to lift while the fingers remain in contact with the strings. For later models, in place of the early style relay is a large power resistor, which is actually electrically divided into two separate resistors wound on one form, mounted on the violin staccato board. The two resistors form a voltage divider. With the staccato brush circuit open (with no music roll hole punched) the path of current flow runs through a 55Ω resistor and then through the bow and finger magnets, allowing the bow and finger to work normally. The voltage drop across the 55Ω stage of the resistor is not sufficient to affect operation. When hole 3 is perforated and the brush touches the contact roller, a fairly large current lows through the two sections of the resistor, causing a voltage drop of slightly more than 70 volts across the 55 ohm section. This leaves only about 30 volts across the bow and finger magnet circuit. The resulting drop in current flow through these two coils renders the bow magnet too weak to hold the bow down, and it lifts from the string. The finger magnet, however, is still sufficiently strong to hold the finger against the string, allowing the string vibration to die away at the correct pitch. Most music rolls actuate the staccato circuit only for a short period of time, corresponding to a hole length of ¼” or less.
The “aftertone damper” lays a felt damper on the violin strings whenever an open string is not being played. Its use is associated with the staccato device. The staccato circuit was typically used during passages of short, rapidly played notes, but at the end of many long notes it was not engaged, allowing the notes to die away at the pitch of the open strings in early Violanos. To overcome this problem without using the staccato perforation at the end of every single violin note, the aftertone damper was installed in late style machines. When any note, other than an open string note, is played the string vibrates between the energized finger and the violin bridge. When the note stops playing and the finger drops away from the string, the felt damper immediately dampens the string vibration. When an open string is played, one of the four electromagnets lifts the aftertone damper, thereby allowing the string to vibrate over its entire length.
Along about 1928 Mills Novelty Company introduced a novel orchestra cabinet which could be attached to any Mills Violano-Virtuoso. Unfortunately, the orchestra cabinet came on the scene too late in the mechanical music era to realize a high degree of commercial success. According to Don Barr, who interviewed Bert Mills, only some 30 to 40 orchestra units were ever built, and only about a dozen music roll titles were arranged. Minor changes to the electrical wiring for a Violano-Virtuoso were required to attach the cabinet, something that could be done after the fact be a competent electrician. However, for models factory equipped a switch was installed to allow the instrument to play either regular Violano-Virtuoso rolls, or the special orchestra rolls at the mere flick of a switch. The special orchestra rolls were at best always a limited production item, and where usually distinguished by a green music roll label.
The orchestra cabinet added a wood block, tom-tom, snare drum (with both tap and reiterating beaters), cymbal and a bass drum (which was lighted from the inside) to the Violano-Virtuoso with is normal piano accompaniment. Surviving Violano--Virtuosos with the orchestra cabinet attachment are relatively rare, but are a novel and intriguing listening experience nonetheless.
Mills is known to have made several different types of music rolls, but to what extent other rolls might have been manufactured is unknown. In the June 23, 1906, issue of the Music Trade Review, it was stated that the Mills Novelty Company paper for music rolls was obtained from the Blauvelt-Wiley Paper Manufacturing Company in New York. Whether, or not, Mills used this same supplier for music roll paper up until roll production ceased is unknown. Here is what is commonly known:
The Mills Novelty Company (currently owned and operated by Bob Brown and Mike Ames, two knowledgeable technicians and collectors of mechanical music items) have designed and manufacture a Digital (MIDI) Violano Player (recently adapted to also play other types of mechanical music machines). This device allows a Violano owner to play original, as well as newly arranged Violano music using a convenient and silent computerized MIDI interface. The ingenious new Digital Player can be attached to the Violano without interfering with its ability to play original music rolls, nor does the new device impact or detract from the originality of any Violano-Virtuoso. For additional information please contact the Mills Novelty Company.
The initial Mills "seed" information (representing some forty items) that was used to begin populating the Mills Novelty Company database was gathered and organized into a coherent form by Art Reblitz, a longtime expert in the restoration, history, and music of automatic pianos, orchestrions, and organs. The impetus to actually create this page and activate a Mills database came from a lone collector who asked if we were interested in collecting Mills information. Of course we were interested, but other mechanical music registry projects had taken precedence, until this little nudge from an enthusiastic collector. Many other people, listed under Acknowledgements in the Introduction to the Registry, also submitted information to Mr. Reblitz.
Heartfelt appreciation is due here to the generosity of the Musical Box Society International (MBSI) for making available the extensive Violano survey work (and related correspondence) of Arthur Sanders (Musical Museum of Deansboro, NY) and Ed Hattrup. Because of this, a wealth of early Violano-Virtuoso information gathered from the 1950s up through the early 1990s is being added to the Mills Novelty Company database. This material includes the survey form responses from the book, The Mills Violano-Virtuoso, by Mike Kitner and Art Reblitz, and published in 1984 by the Vestal Press.
Art Sanders was a well known mechanical music enthusiast and co-founder of The Musical Museum, established in 1948, and located in Deansboro, New York. In the 1950s Art Sanders and Dean Mills, III, founded the Violano Virtuoso Society (in memory of Henry K. Sandell, Inventor). Dean Mills, III, was the Supervising Director, Arthur Sanders was the Technical Director, and Mrs. Ingeborg Sandell Carlson was an honorary member. All considered, Art Sanders was an important visionary and force in the early days of mechanical music preservation and collecting. In 1992 Art Sanders wrote: "We did a heck of a campaign of trying to find owners and machines. We found a great deal of fear showing from some that they might feel the machine would be confiscated by the government, or that a former owner might reclaim it, or something .... Really weird comments from some people. But we did locate some 500 machines ...." In later correspondence, an interesting observation is revealed in an October 16, 1995, letter to Ed Hattrup, whereby Sanders muses, "When I was actively working on it, we averaged losing about 4 machines a year to flood, fire, and such. At least what was reported. Many probably were junked by idiots who did not know what they had." Notwithstanding these comments, the educational activities of Mr. Sanders were probably responsible for saving many more Violanos from the scrap heap than were lost to accident and weather related events. Moreover, the Mills Novelty Company database carries on and essentially extends Mr. Sanders' early research work.
Ed Hattrup was a well known Southern California collector, as well as a recognized restorer of Violanos, but now retired. He conducted his own Violano research work and communicated regularly with Art Sanders, the two men supporting each other's efforts. It is estimated that Mr. Hattrup restored upwards of 35 to 40 Violanos, apart from any restoration work on pneumatic operated coin pianos and orchestrions. In a letter to Art Sanders, dated November 1, 1995, Ed Hattrup concluded that "many changes were made [to Violanos] by field technicians or owners while they were on location. This I imagine was to keep them operating with less maintenance." The evidence seems to support this conclusion, in that it is often the case that extensive changes have been made to many Violanos, especially the early models. Ed greatly extended and added to the valuable survey work begin by Art Sanders back in the 1950s.
In 1984 when Mike Kitner and Art Reblitz wrote the book "The Mills Violano Virtuoso" on rebuilding the Violano-Virtuoso, I had a Statistical Survey included in the book. The idea was to detect when major production changes took place in the production of the Violano-Virtuoso. About the same time the questionnaire was also published in MBSI, AMICA, and The Music Box Society of Great Britain publications. Unfortunately the response was not large, in the past seven years I have received only 45 responses. Many of these I had recorded myself.
A listing of the ones that I have received are included and show the serial numbers found on the front and back of the piano, on the violins, and style and finish of case. Some interesting facts are shown, particularly when a letter preceded the serial number on the piano back. This would indicate returned and modified at the Mills factory. Much more information is required to complete this survey. It has been estimated that there are about 800 to 1000 Violano-Virtuoso still around.
It is hoped that this small amount of information will spark the interest of others that have access to machines not listed and will complete the survey form. I know in the past the survey form was considered by some to be difficult to fill out. This time I have made a new survey form and information on how to find what I am looking for. Even if machines are listed the new form is asking for some additional information and duplication would would be appreciated.
After studying and then entering data from the 1984 survey forms (for which there are several but similar form varieties, depending upon where they were published) it is quite obvious that there was often some confusion by the participant as to how to answer some of the more technical questions. Oftentimes certain "hard to determine" questions were simply ignored, or maybe guessed at, but there are many instances when answers provided are not only questionable, but seemingly downright wrong, making it sometimes very tempting to "correct" what was indicated on a survey form. However, it was not the job of this author to speculate, but instead to record the data as presented and leave any corrections to competent individuals who may in the future choose to inspect, record, and update the data contained in this Mills Novelty Company database project.
Another issue was interpreting some of the check marked answers. The forms all have descriptive text followed by a blank space, and sometimes multiple spaces for multiple choices, which can be simply checked to indicate an answer. Where multiple choices are indicated there are a few instances that suggest the participant might have been temporarily confused as to where to put the check mark, before or after the text. But more importantly, what kind of mark signifies a "yes" answer? A commonly used mark throughout the forms is a standard check mark symbol, but sometimes an X was used, and sometimes both symbols appear on the same form, side by side. In the case where both symbols are used on the same form it is presumed that the standard check mark indicates "yes" or that an option is present, while the X indicates "no" or that an option is not present.
The upshot here is that there is lots of room for misinterpretation, from the beginning of the survey process to the end, and none of the technical related data is confirmable, and/or correctible beyond a shadow of doubt, without re-inspecting each and every machine. These problems, however, are simply inherent in any survey process, and not the fault of any one person or group, but do suggest that the reader take into account the probability of error. But no matter how perfect or flawed the old, historical data for this project may be, it is at least a starting place for more study, and it extends the initial research work begun by Arthur Sanders and then carried on by Ed Hattrup. Kudos for their valiant effort!
There are a myriad of discreet bits of data that make up each Mills Novelty Company database record, some of it closely related, some of it oddly related, and some of it having little in common, except that it details some part or aspect of a Mills automatic musical instrument. The challenge here was to devise and write up report generation code that ultimately produced an easily understandable and readable report, which must account for not only a lot of diverse data, but various kinds and permutations of incomplete and/or missing information and still generate a document that makes good sense. For the Mills database there are some sixty-seven separate data fields making up each and every record, with only a paltry few fields filled for some records, a moderate sprinkling of data for others, and some with the majority of the fields in use, but no one entry currently uses them all. Looking throughout the database all but maybe two or three 2nd violin related fields are yet unused, but they could be used at any time depending upon what new information is reported. Nevertheless, the finished report must sort out all of the possible missing data variations and produce something that, when scanning across all report items, is consistently recognizable and immediately useful.
Taking into account standard paper sizes, and the normal portrait format that most people are used to seeing and using, the reports are basically divided into two sections, as follows:
The report body is further divided into many individual “lines,” plus a few undocumented report subheadings and report section totals that are automatically generated if and when necessary. The first or top line is always present for each and every item. However, all lines subsequent to the top line appear only if and when data pertinent to that particular subject line is present, otherwise these lines do not show, which saves a lot of paper space for long printed reports. Moreover, these subsequent lines are capable of expanding into two or more lines as may be necessary, so that all of the lines pertinent material is shown, no matter how much additional space may be required. This is especially the case for the “Comments” line, which sometimes expands into a sizable multi-line paragraph of descriptive text. The purpose of the subsequent lines is further explained below:
The result of all of the above mentioned effort is presented in the Mills Novelty Company database offered below, and laid out in an orderly, easy to read format. Please note that by default current ownership information is not integral to the database project, but a provision exists whereby the current owner's name information can be accommodated and then shown in database reports. However, this will be done only if and when specific written permission is granted to the Mechanical Music Press specifically authorizing us to show and/or distribute individual ownership information. Furthermore, if and when such authorization is granted the Mechanical Music Press and/or its authors shall assume no liability or responsibility of any kind, nor to any extent, regarding any inferred, purported, or actual privacy intrusions, incidents, or claims.
To ADD ANOTHER ITEM TO THE DATABASE or to facilitate the reporting of errors regarding Mills Novelty Company automatic musical instruments, please click on the Survey Reporting Form button in the options panel below. Please note that we welcome any survey information, whether it be only the brand, model, and serial number, or all requested details. We realize that it can be difficult (even for an experienced restorer) to find certain serial numbers without partially disassembling an instrument. Nonetheless, please submit a form regardless of how many spaces you can currently fill in.
All database report information is offered "as is," without any guarantee or warranty whatsoever of any kind, neither stated, implied, nor inferred, as to the accuracy, correctness, exactness, suitability, or usefulness of any content.
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instrument by clicking the right hand button.
Initial Mills data compiled by Art Reblitz, and transferred into database format by Terry Hathaway; Terry Haughawout (technical assistance).
The Music Box Society International for access to the Hattrup and Sanders Violano correspondence and research data.
Use of Mills Novelty Company trademark logo courtesy of Mills Novelty Company.
Original Mills Novelty Company catalogue and other images courtesy of Terry Smythe and Q. David Bowers, Bob Brown, Mills Novelty Company, other graphics by Terry Hathaway.