The Development and Early Years of the Jukebox (1890s-1930s) – Jukeboxes

As is the case with many inventions, Louis Glass and William S. Arnold were not the only ones to conceive the idea of a coin-operated phonograph at that time in history. In the UK, Charles Adams-Randall requested a patent for his Automatic Pariophone in 1888, and Albert K. Keller in the USA claimed to have been working on the first coin-operated phonograph since 1887 and that his first model was, in fact, manufactured just a few months earlier than Glass and Arnold’s initial model that had been presented at the Palais Royal Saloon in San Francisco, California on November 23, 1889. However, Glass and Arnold’s nickel-in-the-slot phonograph was the first official and public example of a working coin-operated phonograph, so it retains the honour of being the first of its kind.

The success of Glass and Arnold’s model (they claimed their machines had earned over $4,000 in just the first year alone) lead to more people entering the business of manufacturing and planting coin-op phonographs in public places all over the USA. Albert K. Keller was the first to truly be successful at profiting from coin-op phonographs, but he was quickly followed and overtaken by other manufacturers, including the “Big Four”—AMI, Seeburg, Wurlitzer, and Rock-Ola.

This early time period in jukebox history saw several innovations to the “coin-op phonograph” design in rapid succession:

  • Emile Berliner paved the way for the transition process from cylinder-based phonographs to disc record-based ones when he marketed for his gramophone in the 1890s. 
  • The John Gabel Manufacturing Company produced the first automatic multi-selection coin-op phonograph in 1906. This was known as the Automatic Entertainer, which had 24 songs for customers to choose from.
  • The first electronic vacuum tube amplifier created in Bell Labs in 1916 allowed for the first commercial electric loudspeaker to be manufactured in 1924. This “electric amplification” of sound replaced phonographs’ earlier acoustic methods via listening tubes and horns. 
  • The first all-electric home phonograph was manufactured in 1924 by the Brunswick Balke Callender Company. A fully-electric phonograph with a true “loudspeaker” meant that an entire room of people could hear the music being played.
  • Electronically recorded 78rpm records began replacing acoustic disc records around 1925-1926.
  • In 1927, AMI created the first phonograph system that could play both sides of a record. This revolutionary development immediately doubled the number of songs available to customers.
  • The coin-op phonograph design continued to be tinkered with and improved upon throughout that time period, particularly in the areas of the number of songs in the phonograph’s playlist and the process of streamlining and advancing the electronic mechanisms of the machine bit by bit.

It wasn’t until 1937 that the music-playing machines began to be called “jukeboxes.” The origin of the name is believed to be derived from the word “jook” (other spellings include “jouk,” “juke,” and “jute”), which was used as a slang term for dancing and acting wildly or disorderly. The word “jukebox” most likely originated in the Southern states of the USA where African slaves went to “juke joints” after working the fields for some fun and dancing.

One misconception still prevalent today is that jukeboxes were also known as “nickelodeons.” It appears that the confusion originated in the song “Music! Music! Music! (Put Another Nickel In)” by Stephen Weiss and Bernie Baum (1949). The lyrics describe putting another nickel in a “nickelodeon” for more music; however, there is no evidence prior to this song that coin-op phonographs were ever called nickelodeons. Instead, historical evidence points to the word solely being used for movie theaters that charged a nickel for admission.     

Since coin-op phonographs were introduced, first in the USA and then in Europe, they grew in popularity, and their use became widespread.  They were particularly great for individuals who wanted to listen to recordings of classical and orchestral works, which would otherwise have to be listened to live in person or on the radio. Also, black musicians considered the jukebox their best option for reaching the masses with their music, as the radio generally played only “white music” during that time period. 

When the radio became an alternative source of “free” entertainment in the 1920s, record sales—and with them, coin-op phonograph sales—took a serious hit. On top of that, the Great Depression arrived in the 1930s, adding enough damage to sales to almost wipe out the record companies completely. However, the end of the 1930s saw a dramatic rise in sales for both records and jukeboxes; people had survived the financial crisis and wanted to “live” again. This rebound in sales quickly turned the jukebox into a fad that would make it a cultural icon for decades to come. The jukebox industry was about to enter its Golden Age.

Most iconic jukeboxes of the era:

  • The nickel-in-the-slot phonograph (1889)—in article
  • Gabel’s Automatic Entertainer (1906)—in article
  • Link’s Autovox (1928)—top-end jukebox; ten turntables!
  • Holcomb & Hoke’s Electramuse (1928)—well-known example of the style of the era; also one of the first fully-electric phonographs. Very popular
  • Gabel’s Starlite (1936)—first jukebox to feature lighted columns
  • AMI’s Top Flight (1936)—excellent example of the art deco style of that time period

How a jukebox record is selected
After the coin is inserted and accepted, the “make selection” light will illuminate and stay lighting as long as there are credits in the jukebox. The “make selection” light activates all the different music selections available which are selected by pushing a button. The music selection buttons was typically around 24 buttons (switches) which would correspondent to 24 music records on the record stack of the jukebox.

Each of these 24 buttons/switches are connected to a “selection drum” consisting of 24 coils, 24 rods, plates and a master switch which get activated once a music selection button is pressed. As you press a button, its corresponding coil is energised making its corresponding rod push out the back a spring-loaded rod. As the rod protrudes, it pushes two plates together which in turn energies the master switch controller of the jukebox and switches the jukebox on.

The spring-loaded rod holds the music record selection down until the record is played entirely before returning to its starting position. One could actually have more than one music selection playing. For example, if you were to have four record disks selected on the jukebox, four rods would be released (one record disc would be held down until all four records have played and the fourth and final rod has been returned to its starting position).

After the record is played, the cogwheel and coin grinder reset and turn off the “make selection” light until another coin (or coins) are inserted in the coin slot.

How a Jukebox record player mechanism works
The jukebox is able to find the correct record to play thanks to the record player mechanism which is located at the rear of the jukebox and consists of a selector bank coil, cardioid cam, metal arms, a selector rod and a star wheel with bevelled edges. The cardioid cam (also called heart-shaped cam) lifts and lowers a the selector arm that is connected to a rod which has a small metal adjustable unit which scans up and down the rear of the record disk stack as the heart-shaped cam rotates.

The star wheel has 24 teeth and it’s responsible for accurately centring the small metal adjustable unit of the selected record tray. A large metal arm is moved by another cam and swings the record out in position to be played. The turntable then rises up, lifting the music record to the needle to be played. Once the record is played, the record goes back in the record stack and the cycle is repeated when another selection is made.

The turntable is operated by cams along rods connected to a spring-loaded arm which controls the lift of the turntable. The mechanism resets for the next record thanks to a shut-off cycle where a tone arm gets to the center of the record swinging it all the way in and contacting another metal piece which then releases the shut-off trigger.

There are two universal joints, one at each end of a short drive shaft that connects the drive motor to the player mechanism. What powers the entire record player mechanism are several fiber cogwheels (one of them drives the turntable).

A jukebox is a semi-automated apparatus that plays music. It’s usually a coin-operated machine that plays a person’s selection from self-contained media. The classic jukebox has buttons with letters and numbers on them that, when entered in combination, are used to play a particular song.

Traditional jukeboxes once were a significant source of income for record publishers. Jukeboxes received the newest songs first and they played music on demand without commercials. However, manufacturers did not call them “jukeboxes.” They called them Automatic Coin-Operated Phonographs or Automatic Phonographs or Coin-Operated Phonographs. The term “jukebox” appeared in the 1930s.


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