Put another dime in the jukebox

We don’t always admit it, but most people have an innate need for music. Think about all the technologies that bring our music. For decades, most consumers carried radio spectrum music. We went from record, to tape, CD, in various shapes, to pure digital. There are complete satellites that carry – mostly – music. Apart from piracy, people are also willing to pay for music. Although it’s not uncommon to see “jukeboxes” these days, there was a time when they were at any bar or restaurant or even laundry room where you lived. For a penny, you can listen to music and share it with everyone around you.

Even before we recorded music, there was something like a jukebox. Coin-operated machines, as you may recall, are actually much older. Before 1890, you could find coin-up player piano or music boxes. These instruments actually played songs that they were set to play with a roll of paper or a metal disc or hole in the cylinder.

The old days

This changed in 1890 when a pair of inventors attached a coin receiver to an Edison phonograph. Patrons at the San Francisco Palace Royal Saloon can place a hard-earned nickel in the slot and the sound comes out of four different tubes. Note that there were no electronic amplifiers as we know them in 1890. The box earned $ 1,000 in six months, the report said.

A 1927 Knot-a-Jukebox

Imitators soon follow, sometimes in the form of companies that make other instruments, such as the player piano or Wurlitzer. Typically, the coin mechanism will unlock the crank you had to turn to close the old-style phonograph. The song you heard was recorded on the player. This changed in 1918 when an inventor discovered how to automatically pause and restart a record. By 1927, the American Musical Instrument Company had a jukebox that allowed you to pick from ten sides of ten records for a total of twenty selections. Remember, these machines weren’t called jukeboxes yet, but you can clearly identify them as one today.

Around the same time, Seiberg – a player piano maker – created a coin-up box with an electrostatic speaker and could choose one of eight complete turntables. The first models played records in sequence, but the 1928 autophone could choose from eight songs available.


Most of us can probably imagine how we would create a controller to run a few records on demand. You can stack records and use multiple needles. You can keep a rotor record in a container. There are probably a dozen more ways you can think of. But consider this: for most of Jukebox’s life, there were no microcontrollers. Everything had to be run with switches, solenoids, timing motors, cams and the like. Want a look inside a simple jukebox? Watch the video below.

Golden Years

A classic Wurlitzer jukebox

In the 1940’s, jukeboxes began to look less like furniture and more like the showpieces you think of. About that time the name was coined, as well. It will be the 1950s, though, before replacing other media in the classic 45 RPM single box.

Jukeboxes began to become fancy just before World War II, with lighting and moving features. During the war, however, unnecessary production was banned, so for a while the machines went back to basics. After the war, though, machines became more and more large enough to attract attention.

One thing that has become very popular is a wallbox. It’s basically a remote control for a jukebox that allows, for example, to pay for restaurant patrons and select music from their seats.

When radio became prominent, it was thought that the record industry would be destroyed, but it did not. Jukebox was a major consumer of records, and some estimate that by the 1940s, three-quarters of all records produced in the United States had been wound into a coin-up box. In the 1960’s, however, jukeboxes became less popular, although stereo playing began – a novelty at the time.

Although they are still around, not so common. A modern jukebox is probably available at a bar and is either downloaded to the Internet using CDs or digital music.

Mob connection

Rock-Ola is a popular brand of jukebox that started in the 30’s. Named after rock music in the 1930s? Not really. The company was founded by the famous mobster David Rocola and also made scales, furniture and rifles for the army. Despite the 1922 blues ballad, the term “My Man Rocks Me (One Steady Roll)” did not enter the musical language until 1950, and in fact, before that there was an accent for something completely different.

Rock-Ola was not the only jukebox company involved in organized crime. AMI – formerly an American musical instrument company – has for a time been known to be run by mobsters. In 1949, Chicago mob boss Mooney Giancana hired a jukebox distributor who operated a network of machines. From there, the mob systematically took over other distributors, including Century Music Company, which in 1954 operated 100,000 of the country’s 575,000 machines. The whole matter was the subject of a congressional investigation in 1958 where it was revealed that some jukebox operators were even killed for taking their route.

Sounds of Silence

Jukeboxes were once so popular that if you’re drinking or eating, there’s bound to be music. In fact, studies have shown that if the jukebox was played, it was more likely to be fed more coins to continue the game. To that end, distributors would paint Nichols in a certain color — usually red and leave it to the owner. When the operator took the money out of the jukebox, the colored coins were not part of the profit sharing.

In addition, sometimes you do not want to hear the jukebox. For the cost of a song you can play a blank record called “Three Minutes of Silence”. For some machines, this was the highest game record at the time.

Your own

We know people who enjoyed recovering old jukeboxes However, due to their relative lack, acquiring any good thing becomes expensive, unless you are lucky. If you get real junk, you can trash things inside and do something more modern. There’s no reason, of course, that you can’t make your own from scratch.

[Banner image: “Jukebox – 1947 Wurlitzer model 1080” by Paulo Philippidis.   Thumbnail image: “jukebox” by Liz West.]

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