Down in History: It’s The Jukebox’s 127th Birthday, and Here’s the Story of Its Origin

Louis Glass invented the thing by modifying a recording machine and adding a coin slot.

Twas on this day, in 1889, that a handful of people paid a nickel a piece to gather around for the world premier of The Jukebox. They heard a tune from John Philip Sousa’s Marine Band, and the “artistic whistling” of John Y. AtLee.

Initially, the jukebox was blandly named the “Nickel-in-the-slot Player,” because it cost a nickel to hear a song. If you’re trying to do the math of inflation, that’s about a $1.15 a song now. Louis Glass invented the thing by modifying a recording machine and adding a coin slot.

He installed the first jukebox at the Palais Royale Saloon in San Francisco, and it gained attention worldwide quickly thereafter. To hear the music, you had to wear one of 4 pairs of odd-looking headphones emanating from the beast of a wooden cabinet.

Each of the 4 headphones operated individually, so, to hear what your pal was hearing, you also had to insert a coin. And because cleanliness is Godliness, a towel was provided to wipe off headphones between listeners.

By 1905 or so, the “Nickel-in-the-slot Player” became more like what we know a Jukebox to be today. For example, the “Gabel Automatic Entertainer” would visibly change discs as people selected different songs. And it was during the prohibition era (1919 to the early 1930s) that Jukeboxes got really big, as cheap form of good, clean, sober fun.

The Wurlitzer 1015 (1946)
The Wurlitzer 1015 (1946)

Come the 1940s, Wurlitzer, Seeburg, and Rockola were all making improvements to the machine’s capabilities, and jiving up the jukebox’s look. The Wurlizter 1015 might have won that battle. But in 1951, Seeburg’s technical improvements left those Wurlitzer 1015s in the dust by creating a jukebox that stocked small 45s, allowing the Seeburg Model A to house 100 songs — four times as many as the famous Wurlitzer 1015.

For their early start, three singles from the 1950s remain the biggest jukebox moneymakers of all time: Elvis Presley’s “Hound Dog”, Patsy Cline’s “Crazy,” and ”Rock Around the Clock” by Bill Haley & the Comets.

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