J. W. Whitlock Violin Playing Machine
by Mark Reinhart (040827 MMDigest)

I saw the recent posting in which someone was seeking a Mills Violano Virtuoso.  There is regular interest in the Violano largely because they are so well known.  I thoroughly enjoy my own Violano and the music it provides me.

While the Hupfeld Phonoliszt Violina is also well documented,  scarcity makes these fine machines something that is rarely encountered by most collectors today.  Even more scarce are the few other violin machines of which there are only single known examples.  The Poppers violin playing machine being an example.

The J. W. Whitlock violin playing machine is another violin playing machine of which there is but a single example.  J. W. Whitlock, maker of the Wurlitzer Harp, began experimenting with a violin playing device after the success of his self playing harp.

According to Bowers' "Encyclopedia", the Whitlock violin playing machine exists in a single prototype, built circa 1910.  Probably after Wurlitzer became saturated with self playing harps, the sale of instruments dropped off and interest waned for harps.  Mr. Whitlock moved on to other endeavors.

The Whitlock violin playing machine[*] was set up to play using 15 rotating celluloid bows, not unlike the Mills Violano machines.  The Whitlock device used 15 separate strings that were stopped with concert harp like brass stops which, when twisted, stops the string securely.  With 3 stops per string the Whitlock Violin player had a range of 60 notes.

The frame is wooden like the player harps he built; in fact, the reservoir in the base is identical in it's placement.  Vacuum was provided from a remote pump.  There is no indication that there was ever a case built around the mechanism since this was a shop prototype.  When I bought the machine the pneumatics and roll frame were gone.  I did obtain the only two rolls that were cut for the machine.  Interestingly, the rolls are marked in grease pencil, "New Instrument".  The Whitlock device does not play an actual violin but simulates the tone with rotating bows on the strings.

It would be work to put the machine into working order but all the important parts are there.  I will send photos to be posted on the MMD web site.  I am in a garage cleaning mode;  if someone is interested in purchasing this rare machine, please contact me.

Mark Reinhart
Charles Town, West Virginia
27 Aug 2004 14:30:12 EDT

* Editor's note:  Historian Q. David Bowers knew the Whitlock family and we assume he repeated their name, "violin playing machine," in his book, "Encyclopedia of Mechanical Music," page 666:  Following the success of the [Wurlitzer Automatic] Harp, J. W. Whitlock experimented with a violin playing machine.  A prototype which used fifteen rotating celluloid discs (a concept similar to that used on the Mills Violano Virtuoso) was partially completed.  The project was dropped when the second Wurlitzer order for 1000 Harps was cancelled midway through its completion and both parties engaged in a lawsuit.

Whitlock evidently hoped the machine would simulate the sound of a violin.  I disagree with the name since it looks nothing like a violin but, rather, it resembles a large zither with bow wheels.

whitlock01.jpg (47 kb)
Photo 01. The rotating celluloid bows.

whitlock02.jpg (66 kb)
Photo 02.  Close-up of rotating celluloid bows.

whitlock03.jpg (50 kb)
Photo 3. Lower front showing the valve chest in front of the reservoir.

whitlock04.jpg (75 kb)
Photo 04.  Close-up of string stops

Right-click or shift-click to display the images at full resolution.

28 August 2004