Bardeen's "Music Box": The notes of technological innovation play again

3/23/2019 Ryann Monahan, ECE ILLINOIS

ECE ILLINOIS Professor John Dallesasse leads the restoration of John Bardeen's treasured "music box" which was proof-of-concept for his Nobel Prize winning research.

Written by Ryann Monahan, ECE ILLINOIS

Bardeen's 'music box'
Bardeen's 'music box'
It was a small music box with a small device with a big song inside. It’s a song that sung the notes of innovation that would usher in a new era of solid-state electronics.  Its notes were derived from what would become the base for all of the of modern conveniences we know today: the transistor.

The composition of this song began in 1947 when John Bardeen and his colleague invented the transistor, earning the team the 1956 Nobel Prize in physics. It became one of the most important inventions in modern history- an essential component of nearly all modern electronics.

Bardeen’s first transistor allowed the music box to play its song and in 1951 the music box accompanied Bardeen as he joined the faculty at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

John Dallesasse
John Dallesasse
“All of our modern conveniences including cellphones, cars, and computers ultimately trace back to Bardeen's Box,” John Dallesasse, Bardeen’s academic grandson and professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at ILLINOIS explained.

The music box, technically named the “Transistor Oscillator-Amplifier Box,” was one of Bardeen's treasures, as it was proof-of-concept of the transistor technology he had developed at Bell Labs with Walter Brattain. The two, along with William Shockley, would share the 1956 Nobel Prize for "their discovery of the transistor effect."

"The technology change, the societal change as a consequence of the discovery of the transistor and then integrated circuits, microprocessors, big data, I mean all of these things trace their origin to this box,” Dallesasse said.

Bardeen often played its tunes in lectures to demonstrate how it worked. The box had 5 buttons to play 5 notes- Bardeen would refer to a sheet on the top of the box with the order the buttons needed to be pressed to play the song “How Dry I Am.” The tune could be heard over a loudspeaker. 

A historical account in the book “True Genius: The Life and Science of John Bardeen” explains the Prohibition-era drinking song would usually produce laughter in the audience, easing Bardeen’s way into his lecture.

The music box played for 50 years but stopped working around the 1990s. Just in time for the music box’s 60th anniversary, Dallesasse took on the challenge to restore the music box in an effort to play and record the song, at least one more time.

During the restoration process, Dallesasse faced several challenges, such as replacing the original point-contact transistor with another point-contact transistor. Furthermore, soldering could not be involved so Dallesasse had to jumper everything into the box. Several of the capacitors also degraded over time so Dallesasse used an outside board without desoldering any of the components and jumpered in components to get around the components that failed in the circuit. 

Despite challenges, the small music box with the small device holding a big song inside has been restored. Its tune has been recorded to make sure the song and the box’s legacy continues for generations to come.

To listen and learn more, “Restoring the Bardeen Music Box” is now available on YouTube.  The film was produced by documentary filmmaker Amy Young and WILL multimedia producer Jack Brighton, in collaboration with the Spurlock Museum. It can be viewed at

The Bardeen Box is on display and part of the permanent collection of the Spurlock Museum at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Dallesasse is also affiliated with MNTL.

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This story was published March 23, 2019.