When we walk into a retro diner or a Johnny Rockets joint, we know that the décor won't be complete without the jukebox. Even as adults hanging out in bars, we still search for that good old box – just for the joy of inserting your coins and listening to some good music. It's hard to image how such a retro, clunky, jumbo box of an entertainment system now fit into our pockets so easily. We would not have our Walkmans, mp3 players and nano size iPods if it wasn't for the invention of the jukebox.
The ancestors of the jukebox were music boxes and player pianos that played music when a coin was inserted. Their limitation was their size and the fact that they were no more than instruments that played tunes. A vague form of the entertainment system emerged circa 1888, which were phonograph cylinders. They were then known as 'records'. The cylinder had to be played on a mechanical phonograph. The phonograph can be attached with rubber ear tubes (ancestor of headphones) or an amplifying horn so a party can dance to the music.
In the age of mass production and technological advances – the cylinder phonographs gave way to disc records. The discs were easier and cheaper to store in bulk since they could be stacked or put in paper sleeves in rows like books. Discs wobbled less – which meant there were almost no pitch fluctuations – resulting in a higher sound quality.
In 1908 Columbia Records produced discs with recordings on both sides. This allowed consumers to get two recordings at the price of one cylinder. Columbia Records slowly shifted to producing just the disc phonograph records. Although Thomas Edison's company continued to produce the lesser audio quality cylinder phonographs, the production came to a complete halt in 1929.
The popularity of the gramophone records paved the way for the jukebox. The idea of a “nickel-in-the-Slot machine” was up and running with the cylinder phonograph since 1889 in San Francisco. It earned over $1000. Thanks to its inventors Louis Glass and William S. Arnold (who placed the coin mechanisms in Edison's cylinder phonograph's oak cabinet and patented the design) recordings became popular. With the innovation of the disc recordings and the idea of paying for listening music another inventor John Gabel replaced the cylinders with 78 rpm disc recordings. His jukebox offered several selections of records to be played. Gabel's so called Automated Entertainer dominated the market until the 1920s.
The boom in popularity of the jukebox finally started with the development of the electric amplifier in 1927. Combined with the Prohibition Era boredom, the juke provided popular but cheap form of entertainment. The sale jukebox reached at the height of $75 million by 1929. The surge of jukebox sale was short lived however because of the depression sales went as low as $5 million by 1933. The hard times did not kill the popularity of the jukebox. A number of store owners still purchased it and people still listened to jukeboxes. By 1939 sales went back up to $25 and by 1940 there were 400,000 jukeboxes in use in the US. The surge of popularity did not slow down until the mid 1960s.
Because of the popularity of the jukebox in the 40s and 50s it is forever associated as a classic rock icon. There are a ton of movies that we've seen where the jukebox is the brief, lone silent character, yet, the era the films portrayed would not be complete without the jukebox. Although engulfed by chain fast food restaurants and cassette players, jukebox still manages to be the silent player in all our lives. In the 1980s it reemerged in the secondary market as an antique and with compact discs inside in the primary market.
But we owe the jukebox's popularity in the 40s and 50s – the Wurlitzers, Rock-Olas, and See burgs. If it wasn't for them, music and recordings might not be popular and personal entertainment like Walkmans and mp3 players might not have ever been invented. Thanks to jukeboxes, which gave entertainment back in those days, we have our own version of entertainment now – granted in nano form.