On this date in 1889 the world’s first jukebox was installed at the Palais Royale Saloon in San Francisco. It became an overnight sensation, and soon spread to public meeting places around the world. I had to do a double take when I first saw the date because these were the very early days of the Edison phonograph. It is correct, however. The first jukebox was constructed by the Pacific Phonograph Company. Four stethoscope-like tubes were attached to an Edison Class M electric phonograph fitted inside an oak cabinet. The tubes operated individually, each being activated by the insertion of a coin, meaning that four different listeners could be plugged in to the same song simultaneously. Towels were supplied to patrons so they could wipe off the end of the tube after each listening.
The machine was originally called the “nickel-in-the-slot player” by Louis Glass, the entrepreneur who installed it at the Palais Royale. (A nickel then had the buying power of $1.08 today.) It came to be known as the jukebox only later, although the origin of the word remains a bit vague. Coin-operated music boxes and player pianos were the first forms of automated coin-operated musical devices. These instruments used paper rolls, metal disks, or metal cylinders to play a musical selection on the instrument, or instruments, enclosed within the device.
Early designs of the jukebox, upon receiving a coin, unlocked a mechanism, allowing the listener to turn a crank that simultaneously wound the spring motor and placed the reproducer’s stylus in the starting groove. Frequently, exhibitors would equip many of these machines with listening tubes (acoustic headphones) and array them in “phonograph parlors”, allowing the patron to select between multiple records, each played on its own machine. Some machines even contained carousels and other mechanisms for playing multiple records. Most machines were capable of holding only one musical selection, the automation coming from the ability to play that one selection at will. In 1918 Hobart C. Niblack patented an apparatus that automatically changed records, leading to one of the first selective jukeboxes being introduced in 1927 by the Automated Musical Instrument Company, later known as AMI.
In 1928, Justus P. Seeburg, who was manufacturing player pianos, combined an electrostatic loudspeaker with a record player that was coin-operated, and gave the listener a choice of eight records. This Audiophone machine was wide and bulky, and had eight separate turntables mounted on a rotating Ferris wheel-like device, allowing patrons to select from eight different records. Later versions of the jukebox included Seeburg’s Selectophone, with 10 turntables mounted vertically on a spindle. By maneuvering the tone arm up and down, the customer could select from 10 different records.
Greater levels of automation were gradually introduced. As electrical recording and amplification improved there was increased demand for coin-operated phonographs. The term jukebox came into use in the United States beginning in 1940, perhaps derived from the familiar usage “juke joint”, derived from the Gullah word “juke” or “joog” meaning disorderly, rowdy, or wicked.
Song-popularity counters told the owner of the machine the number of times each record was played (A and B side were generally not distinguished), with the result that popular records remained, while lesser-played songs could be replaced.
Wallboxes were an important, and profitable, part of any jukebox installation. Serving as a remote control, they enabled patrons to select tunes from their table or booth. One example is the Seeburg 3W1, introduced in 1949 as companion to the 100-selection Model M100A jukebox. Stereo sound became popular in the early 1960s, and wallboxes of the era were designed with built-in speakers to provide patrons a sample of this latest technology.
Initially playing music recorded on wax cylinders, the shellac 78 rpm record dominated jukeboxes in the early part of the 20th century. The Seeburg Corporation introduced an all 45 rpm vinyl record jukebox in 1950; since the 45s were smaller and lighter, they became dominant for the last half of the 20th century. 33⅓-R.P.M., C.D.s, and videos on DVDs were all introduced and used in the last decades of the century. MP3 downloads, and Internet-connected media players came in at the start of the 21st century. The jukebox’s history has followed the wave of technological improvements in music reproduction and distribution. With its large speaker size, facilitating low-frequency reproduction, and large amplifier, the jukebox played sound with higher quality and volume than listeners could in their homes.
Jukeboxes were most popular from the 1940s through the mid-1960s, particularly during the 1950s. By the middle of the 1940s, three-quarters of the records produced in America went into jukeboxes. While often associated with early rock and roll music, their popularity extends back much earlier, including classical music, opera and the swing music era.
Styling progressed from the plain wooden boxes in the early thirties to beautiful light shows with marbleized plastic and color animation in the Wurlitzer 850 Peacock of 1941. But after the United States entered the war, metal and plastic were needed for the war effort. Jukeboxes were considered “nonessential”, and no new ones were produced until 1946. The 1942 Wurlitzer 950 featured wooden coin chutes to save on metal. At the end of the war, in 1946, jukebox production resumed and several “new” companies joined the fray. Jukeboxes started to offer visual attractions: bubbles, waves, circles of changing color which came on when a sound was played.
Models designed and produced in the late 20th century needed more panel space for the increased number of record titles they needed to present for selection, reducing the space available for decoration, leading to less ornate styling in favor of functionality and less maintenance. Traditional jukeboxes once were an important source of income for record publishers. Jukeboxes received the newest songs first. They played music on demand without commercials. They offered a means to control the music listened to beyond what was available through the technology of their heyday. The invention of the transistor, which made possible the portable radio, in the 1950s was a key factor in the demise of the jukebox. Nowadays jukeboxes have largely been replaced by personal digital audio players with easy and free access to music on demand.
Back in the 1970s and 1980s I would come across jukeboxes quite often in pubs, bars, and diners and could be moved once in a while to put something on. They were cheap and choosing music for public consumption was attractive once in a while. Sometimes you would come across a place with a really old or special selection of records and would feel the need to put something on. My wife and I often played jukeboxes in diners where every booth had it’s own individual selection box. Of course, the association of jukeboxes and diners goes back a long way – as evidenced in the prominence of the jukebox in the diner in the sitcom Happy Days:
This association conjures up corned beef hash and poached eggs for me, because that was my commonest diner breakfast when I was out with my wife. But I used to make it myself quite often too. You can get corned beef hash in cans in the U.S. but home made is much, much better.
You’ll need to start by cutting off a good hunk of cooked corned beef and chopping it reasonably fine with a knife. Dice a cooked potato, along with a medium green bell pepper, and a medium onion. Heat a little olive oil in a heavy skillet, add the peppers and onion and sauté until soft. Next add the corned beef and potatoes, stir the mixture well and moisten with a little beef stock. Cover and let steam for a few minutes. Then uncover and continue to cook and stir until the hash is heated through and moist but not mushy. Serve on a heated platter topped with one or two poached eggs, buttered toast, and hot sauce on the side.