The Jukebox Story: Whose Idea Was This Anyway?

Louis Glass

Had he been born a century later, Louis Glass would probably have been known as a geek. And for a geek, he ended up in the right place, Northern California. Glass was born in 1845 in Delaware but moved to California as a young boy. One of his first jobs was as a telegraph operator. It was the telephony that caught his eye and he used savings from his Western Union post to buy into telephone companies in Oakland and San Diego.

Edison phonograph

Glass also became an agent of the Edison General Electric Company and was general manager of Pacific Phonograph Company when it was founded in 1889. In May of 1890 the Los Angeles Express carried this description of Glass demoing the Edison phonograph: “The Phonograph, that greatest achievement of Wizard Edison’s inventive genius, is in the city, ready to reproduce human speech for business or pleasure. The wonderful instrument is at the Nadean. Mr. Louis Glass, manager of the Pacific Phonograph Company, exhibited its workings to several well known citizens to their extreme mystification and delight in his room last evening and today.”

But Glass, along with business associate William S. Arnold, already had a variation of the Edison machine in mind. In December of 1889, Glass had installed a contraption known as the “nickel-in-the-slot” machine in a gin joint called Palais Royale, a couple blocks from his office in San Francisco. Glass and Arnold had attached a coin operated device to an Edison Class M electric phonograph. Inserting a nickel activated the cylinder that played the music. Without any sort of electric amplification, listeners used one of four listening tubes that were attached to the machine. Glass claims his Palais Royale nickel-in-the-slot machine pulled in $1,000 in six months.

There was only one song per cylinder, so there were no buttons with letters and numbers to push. Glass varied the musical selections by adding a couple more devices at the bar. It is the Glass nickel-in-the-slot that is often viewed as the first jukebox and as such Glass is the man most often credited as the inventor of the jukebox.

Charles Adams Randall

One year before Glass’ device was sucking up nickels in a San Francisco bar, an electric engineer and inventor by the name of Charles Adams Randall filed for a patent for a device he called the Parlophone. Adams-Randall was an American living in London and filed the patent application in the U.K. He had at one time been an assistant to Edison. His inventions included  an “Electro Mechanical Time Stamp,” a business tool enabling the time-stamping of packages or documents when they are received, and an “Electric Time Alarm and Indicator” for which he was granted a U.S. patent. 

The Parlophone would be capable of recording and then playing back on phonograph cylinders. And if it were ever to have been built, which it apparently wasn’t, it would have been coin operated. The uniqueness of the device which Adams-Randall specked out was in the way the sound was created through the movement of a stylus by an electromagnet. While never introduced commercially, Adams-Randall’s patent filing gives rise to the claim that the jukebox was his idea.

Albert K. Keller

Yet another claim to being the father of the jukebox comes from a Philadelphian named Albert K. Keller. In 1891, Keller filed a patent application (granted in 1894) for a “machine for operating phonographs.” In his patent application Keller described his invention: “My invention relates to machines or attachments for operating phonographs after the manner of what are known as vending machines, such attachments remaining normally locked but being released by a coin to be moved to operate the phonograph, and my invention consists of the novel devices and combination of parts hereinafter described and set forth in the claims hereof.”

Keller is viewed as the first successful manufacturer of automatic phonographs. His machines were manufactured by Ezra Gilliland of the Gilliland Sales Co. The Keller designed machines were installed in arcades in numerous cities. It is Keller’s claim that his first automatic phonograph was built in 1887, thus preceding the Glass nickel-in-the-slot.

Albert K_ Keller's coin-operated phonograph
The Keller coin-operated phonograph

But When Did They Start Calling Them Jukeboxes?

While devices that allowed folks to pay-to-play their favorite songs have been around for some 130 years, the name jukebox didn’t come into play until the late 1930’s or early 1940’s. It was derived from the term juke joint. Juke is a Gullah word. Gullah is a Creole like language that was spoken by African-Americans living in the low country of Georgia and South Carolina. A juke joint is a little like what we might call a dive bar. But not the kind of dive bar with alcoholics sitting in the corner on stools all night. Instead a juke joint is a lively sort of place for music, dancing and carousing.

Juke joint
A Clarksdale, Miss., juke joint. 1939

I searched newspapers.com and the first mention I found of a “juke box” was in a gossipy column called the Town Crier in the Akron Beacon Journal of December 14, 1939. The author, Anthony Weitzel, reported that “Bernard and Viola Berk plotting New Year’s eve at their winter place in Eustis, Fla., where the hottest dive in town is a hamburger palace equipped with a “juke-box”….A “juke-box” in case you haven’t been south, is a nickel music-box…the kind the syndicates are squabbling over.”

A September 22, 1940 article in the Baltimore Sun clarified: “You may not know that powerful instrument, the juke-box, by its trade name, but you have surely seen it in the corner of the local drugstore, the roadside hamburg bar, or any of the eat-drink-and-dance places which can’t afford homemade music.”

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10 Responses to The Jukebox Story: Whose Idea Was This Anyway?

  1. A great invention. And updated versions (with digital technology, I guess) are around.

    Maybe old-time jukeboxes are in service in some restaurants and bars too.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pam Lazos says:

    Ken — you’re a Jukebox Hero! ;0)

    Liked by 1 person

  3. “any of the eat-drink-and-dance places which can’t afford homemade music”
    I remember those places … we had a lot of them back then … back before the coronavirus took them all away.

    I loved everything about this post. EVERYTHING!

    (When I was in junior high, the local pizza place would sell the old .45s that would be rotated out of their jukebox for a quarter each. I still have loads of them.)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ken Dowell says:

      45’s were great. Trading them in for cassette tapes was a pretty bad deal. Did you have one of those record players where you could stack up the 45’s, then when one finished the next would drop down on top of it?

      Like

      • Of course I did! My record player had the fat plastic .45 adapter that you had to place over the spindle so the stack of .45’s would fit. And, then we would take the pile of .45s and shuffle them up and then stack ’em. (As a result, I still am quite fond of a lot of B-sides that got shuffled into A-side prominence in the random stacks.)

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Pingback: The Jukebox Story: Evolving Technology | off the leash

  5. Fun, Ken. I still have my original record player & the 45s & albums that I played on it. And yes, it still works. I always thought juke boxes were fascinating–treasure troves of favorites & discovering something new.

    Like

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