Henri Lioret was a highly respected clockmaker in France when he first became interested in 'talking machines' in 1893. Working with dollmaker Emile Jumeau, he created a phonograph for a talking doll which would ultimately prove far more successful than the failed Edison doll. In addition to a clockwork motor (rather than Edison's hand-cranked doll) he used removable cylinders made of molded celluloid. The success of the Bébé Jumeau talking doll led Lioret to make this very unusual phonograph starting in 1895. The basic mechanism is the same as was used in the doll, however it was mounted into a tiny pasteboard box with simulated leather covering measuring only 7-1/2" tall. The side door opens to allow access to the removable cylinders, and the top lid reveals the simple celluloid horn. The Merveilleux played only the smallest of Lioret cylinders, of only 30 seconds duration. Despite its very simple construction, it is ingeniously designed and plays remarkably well for such an early phonograph.
The picture on the left shows the tiny spring-motor phonograph of the Merveilleux, removed from its box, with the cylinder in position and the celluloid horn pointing upwards. The original ad on the right was published in 1896..
It is amazing to realize how advanced this simple machine was when compared to phonographs being made in the United States at the same time. Columbia was still developing heavy spring motors to replace the cumbersome battery-powered electric phonograph motors of the early 1890s, offering machines like the Type G at $75 and Type K at $150. Edison was also struggling to make the phonograph more user friendly, acquiring the rights to the Capps spring motor and offering the Edison Spring Motor Phonograph at a hefty $100. The fragile brown wax records offered by both companies required stethoscopic eartubes to hear them clearly. Yet Lioret's little "Merveilleux" sold for a mere 20 Francs (equivalent to only $4!) and played cylinder records molded out of nearly indestructible celluloid which offered surprisingly clear and loud reproduction. (Lioret's larger machines were obviously superior in construction and sound quality.) Lioret was unquestionably far ahead of his time. (He went on to make 4-minute celluloid cylinders as early as 1898, fully 14 years before Edison's famous Blue Amberol records.) The Merveilleux also featured an automatic shutoff, and a simple push button would instantly reset the stylus to the beginning of the record -- quite sophisticated for such a simple mechanism.
The Merveilleux was sold primarily in France but was also marketed in England, with English-language records. In the photograph at the top of the page the machine on the left features English instruction labels and a London dealer's address. Curiously, the phonograph on the right, marketed in France, has French labels pasted on top of English ones! It was apparently destined for sale in England then reconverted for the French market.
Because of the extremely fragile cardboard construction of the case and the simple wire-framed motor, very few of these diminutive machines have survived the past century. They are fascinating examples of surprisingly advanced technology for the times.
Paper instruction labels inside the lids were printed in French or English depending upon the market.
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