The Mills Violano Virtuoso stands among the most complicated and captivating automatic musical instruments ever produced. The musical arrangements are programmed on paper rolls and read by hundreds of wires that send signals to the violin and the piano mechanisms. Its musical versatility allows it to handle every type of music from Classical and Operatic to frenetic Ragtime tempos requiring half tone double stops.
The Violin strings are played by four rotary bows, powered by a variable speed motor. It is capable of playing all four strings at once to create four part independent counterpoint and with an octave available on each string, the violin can reproduce 64 notes.
The fretting of the strings is accomplished by remarkably fast and accurate steel fingers controlled by electromagnets. A magnetic coil vibrates the strings to create a vibrato effect.
The piano has 44 notes and is the only automatic electric piano ever built. Using electric solenoids in place of pneumatics made for a quieter and more reliable system. Every component of the Violano was engineered to withstand the rugged journeys they would make all over the World and to perform reliably under constant use in commercial establishments. An ingenious tuning system with adjustable weights providing tension on the strings, allows the owner to tune the Violin without professional assistance.
In their day, Violanos performed in thousands of public venues and in the homes of the wealthiest families around the country and overseas. There was even one made for the Smithsonian Institute in 1914. Sadly, in today’s world, only a very small portion of the population will ever experience this machine in action and the wonderful live musical performances it renders.
The concept of creating a machine that could play the violin and piano like a human being originated in the imagination of a Swedish immigrant inventor, Henry Konrad Sandell, a contemporary of Thomas Edison. Sandell conceived this machine in 1899 and presented his idea and patents to the Mills Novelty Company in 1903. It would take years of experimentation and failures before Sandell perfected the Violano around 1912, giving the World a miraculous form of entertainment that was designated by the U.S. Government as one of the eight greatest inventions of the decade.
Few people believed that this could ever be accomplished and the task was only achieved due to the tenacity of Sandell and the unlimited financial resources of the Mills Novelty Company, which had made a fortune producing coin operated machines such as slot machines, vending machines and jukeboxes.
There is a substantial library of music available on paper rolls, which have 5 to 10 tunes on a roll, depending on the type of music. In their heyday the majority of Violanos were used as traffic builders in commercial businesses. They were so expensive that very few businesses could afford to buy one, so Mills would lease them. They would typically take in more than enough nickels to make the lease payments and generate traffic and new customers, as people would drive for 100 miles to hear one.
If you have never experienced a live performance of the Violano Virtuoso, you will find it worth the trip to Solvang just to listen to these exceptional examples of a breathtaking instrument. You won’t be disappointed and may decide you need to take one home.
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