Mills Novelty Company

Home of the Violano Virtuoso

Violano Virtuoso

millsMusicTradeReview-THUMBThe inventor of the Mills Violano Virtuoso was Henry Konrad Sandell, a contemporary of Thomas Edison, who was born in 1876. Henry Sandell arrived in the United States from Sweden at the age of twelve in about 1888. He was granted his first United States patent on the mechanism around 1899 and put his proposals and patents before Herbert S.Mills around 1903.

On March 25, 1905 Henry Sandell filed an application for a United States patent for an electric self playing violin. The patent was granted, as number 807,871, 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.  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 listenable.  Most were returned to the factory and retro-fitted with a piano back.   To our knowledge only one very early arcade type example existed without a piano in modern times.   The owner added a standard Mills piano back to this example within the last ten years---great for making the instrument sound better, bad for history.   At the time player pianos and mechanical coin-operated devices were extremely popular.US_Patent_807871_Fig_1_Edited

Subsequently a piano mechanism was added to the violin mechanism, and the combination came to known as the Violano Virtuoso.

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 in quanity until around 1911. Technology used in the instrument was granted patents on  June 4, 1912, under United States patents 1,028,495 and 1,028,496.  This is why very early instruments often say "patent applied for" or "patent pending".    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 commonly known today as 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, located in the Smithsonian Directors Office.  We thank the Smithsonian for loaning us these rolls for digital recording, so that this early music is again available for collectors in modern times.

Production of Violano Virtuoso's seems to have finished in 1930. Henry Sandell died in 1948.  By the time of his death, Sandell had been granted over 300 patents, many for the technology used in the Violano Virtuoso.  Mr. Sandell was laid to rest at Rose Hill Cemetery on Western Avenue in Chicago.

The exact number of machines produced is not known. Estimates are between 4,000 and 5,000. Today, we estimate that about 2000 of the single violano instruments still exist and our records indicate the location of approxmiately 1000 Violano's currrently!     The Violano Virtuoso seems to have the highest survival rate of any type of coin operated instrument of this era.  This was due in part to the minimal maintenance requirements, and also because of the sales technique of Mills Novelty Company.  Unlike other manufacturers of this era like the JP Seeburg Company, Mills did not sell to "route operators" but rather directly to the end user.  When the useful commercial life of the instrument had passed, many were simply put in the backroom for storage, rather than destroyed to make room for the newest replacement entertainment of the day.

A common player piano operates pneumatically. 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 voltages) 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 strings were played by small electric powered rollers, which were self-rosining, and a chromatic set of metal 'fingers'. The violin had no finger board. A small metal "finger", activated by an electromagnet, rose from under the string lifting it in a "V" shaped slot thus stopping off the string. The strings were bowed by four small wheels made of discs of celluloid clamped together in a dish-shaped form. These applied just the right pressure to the strings and were driven by a variable-speed controlled motor. This and a mute allowed the volume of sound produced to be varied. The violin produced a full tone and was able to sound 1/2 note double stops at ragtime tempo. The staccato coil allowed the bows to leave the string a fraction of a second before the 'fingers'. The violin stayed in tune by a sophisticated array of tuning arms and weights. The vibrato was produced by using an electromagnet to shake the tail-piece of the violin.

The piano had 44 notes, half the number of keys found on a normal piano keyboard. It 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 centre of the frame and the treble strings radiated out to the edges from the centre. This arrangement distributed the string pressure more evenly across the frame and helped keep the piano in tune.   All Mills Violanos should be tuned to A=435, which was the original factory tuning during production.  The unique Mills piano layout also served to confuse many piano tuners in later years!

Most Violano Virtuoso instruments were coin-operated and its mechanism was capable of counting up to 15 coins. Some models were made for domestic use and did not have the coin mechanism, instead a fancy casting with the companies logo was placed over the coin insert hole in the case.   Many very early "Home Model" and "Bow Front" violanos contained only on and off buttons, and did not accept coins at all. 

The instrument used rolls of perforated paper.  Most of the rolls had five tunes (but a few rolls produced had ten songs or more), many were popular songs of the day.   Individual tunes could not be selected as the rolls plays in order from beginning to end of the roll. Over total production time, the Mills Novelty Company produced 3,121 different rolls. Each arrangement of a song was identified by a unique number.  Some songs appear on more than one rolls.   A complete rollography for the Violano Virtuoso music now exists, this information is available on this site under "violano rolls".  Over 6,000 songs are currently digitally recorded from original rolls and the same tune number arrangement has been continued.   A list has been produced that covers more than 95% of the different rolls that were ever produced, some 13,000 songs in all!

The Violano Virtuoso is a heavy object, weighting about 1100 pounds.  The first page of the Violano Virtuoso manual stated that to lift the instrument from the delivery wagon would need "3 good men".

The Violano Virtuoso was designed primarily for public places.  It is considered to be a beautiful work of wood craftsmanship today. The wooden cabinet in which the mechanism was housed usually was oak or mahogany.  A small number of Violanos were made with special order cases.  The majority of the cases were constructed with mahogany veneers, but some were also available in oak and walnut.

In addition to the Violano Virtuoso, the Mills Novelty Company developed a variety of other automatic musical instruments.  You can see these and other instruments in our Violano archive section on this website.   These included the Viol-Cello, the Viol-Xylophone, the Mills String Quartette, the Mills Race Horse Gambling Piano, and the Mills Electric Piano.  Rumors persist of the existance of a Viol-Cello machine, but unfortunately no remaining examples of the cello or xylophone instruments are known today.  Perhaps you will be the lucky one that finds one!