What is a Violano?
The Violano is an electrically operated mechanical musical instrument which plays one or two violins
and frequently a 44 note piano from punched paper rolls. The machines were produced by the Mills
Novelty Company of Chicago from the early 1900's to 1929. While the exact number of Violanos
produced is not known, it is believed to have been between 4 and 5 thousand. Most of those produced
before 1912 contained only a violin, while those after this date had the addition of an unusual 44 note
piano and were known as the "Violano-Virtuoso". Machines with two violins are known as the
De Luxe Model Violano-Virtuoso, or more familiarly the "Double Mills", and are quite rare. Unlike a
common player piano which operates pneumatically, the Violano is all electric and was designed to
operate on 110Volts D.C. Units that were meant to work in locations that had 110Volts A.C. and
other power sources were shipped with a unique converter unit. Today, only about 750 of the single
machines and fewer than 100 of the double machines are believed to survive.
Henry K Sandell was the primary inventor of the Violano, and received his first patent on the violin
mechanism at the age of 21. By the time of his death in 1948 at the age of 70, he had been granted
over 300 patents, many for the Violano. This is quite an amazing accomplishment for this immigrant
from Sweden who arrived in the United States at the age of 10. The machines have a number of
fascinating devices which still amaze those who study them even to this day, such as the rotating bow
wheels, weights to keep the violin strings in tune, a five-speed digital motor, a pulse-modulated feeder
governor, a symmetric piano string arrangement to keep the stresses uniform, balancing of the
electro-magnet inductances to insure that the bow wheels disengage from the violin strings before the
fingers release, and so on. All of these things were developed by this Edison contemporary since
catalogs of these types of devices did not exist in 1904!
The U.S. Patent Office had a display of several significant inventions at the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific
Exhibition in Seattle in 1909, including an early Violano-Virtuoso. Mills Novelty used this event to
stretch the truth slightly by advertising the Violano-Virtuoso as "Designated by the U.S. Government
as one of the eight greatest inventions of the decade" on all machines produced thereafter. Marketing
hype was not invented yesterday!
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