Since the beginning of time, mankind has always been enchanted by the sound of music. The earliest distinct mechanical musical instruments were probably pre-Christian pipe organs, traceable to a number of eastern Mediterranean countries. An early illustration of a treatise by a Greek known as Muristus shows a bellows with four pipes for human blowers to inflate, tubing to channel the wind, and twelve pipes with sliding valves to control their operation. The instrument is described as being audible for up to sixty miles. In contrast to this thunderous oversized bagpipe, the ancient Greek hydraulis, a less imposing instrument, featured a keyboard, a range of pipes, and a supply of air created by water pressure. The hydraulis, the world's first keyboard instrument, was in fact the predecessor of the modern church organ. In the 1st century AD, Heron of Alexandria drafted an extended treatise on Pneumatics, in which he described the use of pneumatic power to control a variety of mechanisms, including automata and whistling birds.
During the 13th century, Dutch navigators returned from China with the first chimes, a set of tones activated by a pinned cylinder. These early instruments were mostly used in churches to enjoy townsfolk, the most ancient chime could be found in the cathedral of Strasbourg (1352-1354). However not all early barrel organs were intended for the whole municipality. Rich landowners wanted to provide music as a diversion for their noble guests, and it became fashionable to include an element of automation, both aurally and visually. One of the best sources for the design and construction of these renaissance "ghetto blasters" is the German Jesuit scholar Athanasius Kircher. In his Musurgia Universalis, published in 1650, Kircher sets out his views on music: he believed that the harmony of music reflected the proportions of the universe. His treatise includes plans for constructing water-powered automatic organs, notations of bird songs and diagrams of musical instruments. Other devices designed by Kircher include an aeolian harp, automatons such as a statue which spoke and listened via a speaking tube, a perpetual motion machine, and a rather gruesome Katzenklavier ("cat piano").
By the early 18th century, the musical box, by definition a mechanical instrument in which tuned steel tongues are set in vibration by means of pins set in a rotating cylinder or disc, had been in use for centuries on large size barrel organs. Musical or "carillon" watches used hammers striking a melody on a nest of bells, requiring a considerable amount of space.
The quest for miniaturizing these fabulous devices to a portable size was taken up by Europe's most talented inventors and watchmakers. On 15 February 1796, the watchmaker Antoine Favre presented his invention to the Société des Arts in Geneva, who recorded it as "a carillon without bells playing two tunes and imitating the sound of the Mandolin, enclosed within a snuffbox of ordinary size", a system in which vibrating tuned blades replaced the much more bulky and fragile carillon bells. What may at first have been considered merely a gadget incorporated in musical watches, perfume bottles, cane holders and others, Favre's invention revolutionized the fine art of manufacturing musical watches and objets de vertu in Geneva, sources of delight to the world's high and mighty from Europe to China (see Timepieces, The Forbidden City Publishing House, comprising a selection of timepieces in the Palace Museum in Beijing, p. 223, pl. 147).
The present timepiece is unquestionably a sensational discovery, being one of the very first musical automata of the second generation incorporating Favre's invention of tuned steel teeth instead of hammers and bells, resulting in a slimmer, hence more elegant yet robust layout. Entirely hand-crafted and doubtlessly made to special order, it is believed to be the first musical automaton watch featuring in addition a quarter repeating and, most importantly, a musical alarm mechanism. It was made at the turn of the 18th century by the ingenious watchmaker François Nicole, best known for his work on the development of musical boxes, who had left his hometown Chenit around 1783 to settle in Geneva. Due to the political turmoil caused by the annexation of Geneva by French troops, virtually the entire production had ceased between 1798 and 1800, resulting also in François Nicole's repeated changes of domicile during this period. The early date of manufacture of the present timepiece also explains the hand-engraved signature François Nicole fecit à Genève in the back of its case, as Nicole's watch manufacture was officially registered only as of 1828, the year following his invention of a damper which revolutionized the quality of music.
Early musical automatons are a rarity per se, such marvel featuring additional complications such as a quarter repeating watch with alarm, and particularly a musical alarm instead of the much better known ringing on a bell, must be considered the ne plus ultra of this rare species. In over 30 years of international watch auctions, not even a handful of this extraordinary combination have been offered to the public. The appearance of a horological masterwork such as the present specimen, combining technical genius, outstanding craftsmanship and superb quality cannot but be greeted with enthusiasms by the aficionado of exceptional timepieces.
François Nicole (1766-1849)
François Nicole, watchmaker and mechanic, was the son of Pierre Nicole and Suzanne Marie Golay of Chenit in Switzerland's Vallée de Joux, home of numerous illustrious watchmakers and manufacturers. Around 1783, he left his hometown and settled in Geneva, changing several times his domicile towards the end of the 18th/beginning of the 19th century, certainly due to the political turmoil at the time: he first settled in Nyon close to Geneva, then in Geneva in 1791. On 29 April 1792 he married Marie Magniet of Cartigny in Cartigny/Geneva with whom he had seven children between 1793 and 1808. In 1795, the couple lived in Bourdigny, in 1800 in Vernier, in 1802 again in Geneva. On 17 July 1823 he was given a passport in order to travel to Paris, he was 57 years old and measured "5 pieds et 4 pouces", 5 feet and 4 inches, or 162 meters. In 1827 Nicole invented a damper which allowed bass notes to be played without extraneous noise, revolutionizing the quality of the music. François Nicole and Nicole frères were recorded as manufacturers of watches, musical watches, musical automatons and musical in Geneva between 1828 and 1835. François Nicole passed away in 1849 at Geneva's Quai des Bergues.
The hallmark on the case of the watch, the letters VC in a lozenge, can be attributed to "M.M. Voisin et C.", reputed "faiseurs de boîtes", specialized in the manufacture of watch cases. The firm was active in the first half of the 19th century, located nearby Coutance 73 in Geneva.
We are indebted to Ms Anne Baezner of Geneva's Musée d'art et d'histoire for her valuable help in researching this timepiece.