The early jukeboxes, the automated phonographs and the nickel-in-the-slot machines had some serious limitations. They were built as coin-op attachments to the early Edison phonographs which used cylinders to hold the music. The early model jukebox had a single cylinder that held a single song. How many nickels are you going to throw in the slot if the damned machine keeps playing the same song over and over again? Especially since you likely had to crank it up yourself. In addition, there was no amplification. The listening device was a few tubes that came out of the machine. That sort of thing might work if you’re in a museum, but the initial sites for jukeboxes were mostly bars and you can just imagine how limiting the listening tubes were. (See The Jukebox Story: Whose Idea Was This Anyway?)
And yet the early jukeboxes were successful enough to arouse the interest of a number of entrepreneurs and manufacturers looking to produce more of them. And with them came inventors ready to address those limitations. So the evolution of jukebox technology involved creating ways to give the user more and more songs to choose from, improving the sound experience, and eventually making them look a little cooler.
Initially the issue of limited choice was addressed by installing multiple machines in the same location. Improving the capacity of the jukebox to play more than one song required the music to be in a more convenient form than the old metal cylinders. That problem was addressed in 1890 when a German immigrant named Ernie Berliner created the first disc record. Berliner had come to the U.S. in 1870 at the age of 19, primarily to avoid serving in the Franco-Prussian War. Among his inventions was a telephone transmitter that he patented and later sold to Bell Telephone. In 1887 he received a patent for the “gramophone,” a device which, according to his patent application, was capable of “recording sound using horizontal modulation of a stylus as it traced a line on a rotating cylindrical surface.” Basically that is the technology that turntables use to play vinyl up to this day. Berliner produced the first gramophone in 1890.
It took another European immigrant to apply Berliner’s invention to the jukebox. John Gabel was born in 1872 in what is now Slovakia but at the time was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. He left Europe at age 14, joining his brother in Cleveland. He later moved to Chicago where in 1898 he founded the Automatic Machine and Tool Company. The company’s primary business was in making arcade games. But in 1905 Gabel’s company produced a coin-operated music player, the Automatic Entertainer. It offered 24 choices, based on two stacks of 12 records. It also automatically changed the needle after each record, a feature he received a patent for. I’m old enough to have regularly used a “record player” and would have loved an automatic needle changer.
Franz Rudolph Wurlitzer was another 19th century German immigrant. In 1850 he founded the Wurlitzer Company, producer of primarily keyboard instruments. Wurlitzer is perhaps best known for its organs, but it also was for a time the leading producer of jukeboxes. By 1930 it was being run by Wurlitzer’s heirs and they positioned the company as a jukebox producer. In 1933 Prohibition ended. That gave rise to the opening and reopening of bars all around the country and with those new bars came a new demand for jukeboxes. Wurlitzer was the primary beneficiary of that, selling up to 40,000 jukeboxes a year by the end of the decade.
In 1941, Wurlitzer produced a jukebox to demonstrated the change in style and appearance of the jukebox. The Wurlitzer 850 Peacock, with its art deco styling, bright lights and colors, bore little resemblance to the old wooden cabinets of bygone years.
Wurlitzer is one of what is called the big four of jukebox producers. Another was Seeberg, a company that is responsible for a series of innovations that created the classic jukebox of the 50’s and 60’s, when the devices had their heyday. Not surprisingly, the company was founded by a European immigrant. Justus P. Seeberg came to the U.S. from Sweden in 1897 at the age of 16. Ten years later he founded the J.P. Seeberg Piano Company and 20 years after that, the company gave up on pianos and focused on jukeboxes.
In 1928 Seeberg produced the Audiophone, a coin-up player that housed eight separate turntables in a ferris-wheel type configuration. But the audiophone also introduced the electrostatic speaker providing greater amplification of the sound that came from the jukebox.
From the 1950’s and for a couple of decades after that you could hardly find a diner in the U.S. that didn’t have a jukebox set at every booth. Seeberg was responsible for that innovation as well. Now run by Justus’ son Noel, the company introduced in 1948 the 3W1 wallbox. It operated as a kind of remote control for the jukebox and eventually would have speakers to play the music right at the user’s table. The first Seeberg wallboxes used either a multi-wire cable or a wireless signaling system to get the customer’s choice sent to the master box.
One year later came an equally profound innovation and one that sent Seeberg to the top of charts in terms of jukebox sales. The 1949 model used the smaller and lighter 45 rpm disc in place of the bulkier 78 rpm versions. This enabled Seeberg to create a jukebox with 100 choices, 50 45-rpm records that could be played on either side. The new Seeberg players held the records in a magazine-type set up and played the records vertically on a flywheel turntable. By the mid-50’s Seeberg was producing 200-choice models.
This is what jukeboxes would look like for at least the next 25-30 years. 45-rpm records played on both sides with “orders” of what to play being sent in from remote boxes. Many times I can remember sitting in a diner getting one coffee refill after another waiting for my songs to finally come up on the jukebox.
Jukeboxes would later change as the way listeners accessed their music changed. Records would eventually give way to CD’s and then video DVDs. Eventually jukeboxes would be run off of digital music, choices would become practically unlimited and the grand old eye-catching cabinets became dinosaurs.