Back in the Victorian era, there were no radios, no televisions, no DVD players and no iPods. Phonographs were in their infancy and only to be found in the homes of the wealthy. Of course, those who could play musical instruments were a ready source of entertainment for themselves and their friends and family, but what about those who couldn't play an instrument? Victorian ingenuity provided numerous ways for people to enjoy music without having to go to the trouble of studying an instrument. Music boxes had been around for some time and the player piano was invented around the mid-19th century, so it was only to be expected that someone would come up with a design for a self-playing harmonica. Over the next hundred years or so, dozens of such inventions were patented.
Granted in 1878 to Newman R. Marshman of Boston and Mason J. Matthews of New York City, this is the earliest patent I have seen for a player harmonica. As with the player piano, the music was "written" as a series of holes punched in a roll or paper. The player blows into the mouthpiece whilst turning handles that wind the paper roll through the instrument, determining which notes are to be sounded.
Matthews was awarded another patent for a similar idea, US Patent 211634 issued the following year:
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