The Violano Virtuoso
The Mills Novelty Company, Incorporated of Chicago, Illinois was once a leading manufacturer of coin-operated machines, including slot machines, vending machines, and jukeboxes, in the United States. Between about 1905 and 1930, the company’s products included the Mills Violano-Virtuoso and its predecessors, celebrated machines that automatically played a violin and, after about 1909, a piano.
The main inventor of the Mills Violano-Virtuoso was Henry Konrad Sandell who was born in about 1878, & therefore a contemporary of Thomas Edison.
Henry Sandell arrived in the United States from Sweden at the age of 12 in about 1888. He was granted his first United States patent on the mechanism at the age of 21, in about 1899 and put his proposals and patents before the Mills Novelty Company in about 1903.
On 27 March 1905 Henry Sandell filed an application for a United States patent for an electric self-playing violin. The patent was granted on December 19, 1905 and assigned to Mills Novelty Company. This forerunner of the Violano-Virtuoso was known as the Automatic Virtuosa. It was marketed in 1905. At the time player pianos and mechanical coin-operated devices were extremely popular. These very early instruments did not have pianos. It quickly became evident that a piano needed to be added to make the machine more popular and more pleasant to listen to. Most were returned to the factory and retro fitted with a piano back.
The United States Patent and Trademark Office had a display of several significant inventions at the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition in Seattle, Washington in 1909, including an early Violano-Virtuoso. The company used this event to promote the Violano-Virtuoso as "Designated by the U.S. Government as one of the eight greatest inventions of the decade" on all subsequent machines.
The Violano-Virtuoso was not available to the public until 1911. Technology used in the instrument was patented on June 4, 1912. Early Violano-Virtuoso’s have a glass divider between the violin mechanism and the piano mechanism. Machines with two violins are known as the De Luxe Model Violano-Virtuoso or the Double Mills.
In 1914 an instrument with many very early rolls was presented from the Mills Company to the Smithsonian Institution. It still exists today and is located in the Smithsonian Directors Office.
The exact number of machines produced is not known. Estimates are between 4,000 and 5,000. Today, some sources estimate that only about 750 of the single machines and fewer than 100 of the Double Mills still exist, while other sources estimate that several thousand machines survive. However, the Violano-Virtuoso have the highest survival rate of any type of player piano; they required little maintenance when they were first produced and that is still the case for those that survive.
A common player piano operates pneumatically, moved or worked by air pressure. The Violano-Virtuoso was all electric and all the moving parts were set in motion by electric motors or electromagnets. A company catalogue states that they ran on "any electric lighting current" and used "no more than one 16-candle power light." They were designed to operate on 110 volts direct current. In locations that had 110 volts alternating current, or other types of power supply, the instruments were used with a unique converter unit.
The violin had four strings, with an octave available on each string, and could reproduce 64 notes. All four strings could be played simultaneously. This allowed the possibility of four-part independent counterpoint. A vibrato could be produced.
The piano had 44 notes, half the number of keys found on a normal piano keyboard. The piano was played by regular hammers using a standard player piano action. The hammers were activated by electromagnets. The piano frame was made of iron, shaped like a shield, and symmetrically strung. The bass strings were at the center of the frame and the treble strings branched out to the edges from the center. This arrangement distributed the string pressure more evenly across the frame and helped keep the piano in tune.
The instrument used rolls of perforated paper. Most of the rolls had five tunes on them, the popular tunes of the day. Individual tunes could not be selected. Over time, the Mills Novelty Company produced approximately 3,121 different rolls. Each arrangement of a song was identified by a unique number. Some songs appear on more than one roll.
The Violano-Virtuoso was a very heavy object. The first page of the Violano-Virtuoso manual stated that to lift the instrument from the delivery wagon would need "3 good men".
Production of the Violano-Virtuoso seems to have finished in 1930. Henry Sandell died in 1948, at the age of 70.
The Violano-Virtuoso was designed for public places, and can be considered to be a beautiful work of craftsmanship.
In addition to the Violano-Virtuoso, the Mills Novelty Company developed a variety of other automatic musical instruments. These included the Viol-Cello, the Viol-Xylophone, and the Mills String Quartette.
Back to Table of Contents