A short history of how jukeboxes changed the world

A short history of how jukeboxes changed the world

You don’t have to be a music historian to recognize the unmistakable silhouette of a classic Bubbler jukebox. Its vibrant colors, namesake bubbles, and super-smooth sound are all amongst the hallmarks of its timeless design, part of what’s made it so eternally popular throughout the ages.

Even though modern technology has afforded us, music players that are tiny enough to fit in our pocket, we can say with confidence that the classic jukebox will never truly die. And there’s a good reason for that; as a true icon of American culture, the modern jukebox is steeped in over a century of history. Let’s take a look back at some of that history, and what’s made it into the legend it is today.

The Early Years: 1870s to 1910s

It may not surprise you to know that the earliest incarnations of jukeboxes weren’t called jukeboxes. Those early models were instead known as Automatic Coin-Operated Phonographs, or Automatic Phonographs, or Coin Operated Phonographs. Certainly doesn’t roll off the tongue quite as well, does it? The term jukebox didn’t actually appear in our lexicon until the 1930s or so. Around fifty years before that, the man to create the first phonograph was none of than one Thomas Alva Edison; America’s greatest inventor. Not that he had particularly big plans for his machine; in fact, he thought it would be put to best use as an aid for office dictation.

Luckily, the world had other ideas. Fast forward to 1890; Louis Glass and William S Arnold have modified an Edison Class M Electric Phonograph with a coin mechanism, making it the world’s first nickel in the slot phonograph. It had no speakers; patrons had to listen to the music using one of four listening tubes. The machine-made $1000 in its first six months of service – a lot of money back then! 

Most of the coin-operated phonographs that followed were only capable of playing one record. However, in 1906, the John Gabel Manufacturing Company produced the first automatic multi-selection coin-op phonograph, which allowed patrons to choose up to 24 songs. Twelve years, Hobart C Niblack patented a device that could change records automatically. It was a vital step in the development of the jukebox as we know it today 

Amidst the Roaring Twenties, jukeboxes sing

That mechanism played a key role in the birth of one of the first selective jukeboxes ever, which was debuted in 1927 by the Automated Musical Instrument Company (which eventually became AMI). This broadly coincided with the introduction of electronically recorded music; another important step in jukebox evolution.

With all these new additions, jukeboxes becoming prominent vehicles for some truly remarkable technology for the age. It made them prime choices during the Great Depression when many people began looking for inexpensive forms of entertainment. This is where our founder, David C Rockola, made his first foray into the jukebox world. Having already made quite the name for himself with pinball tables and similar devices, he bought a mechanism from an acquaintance named Smythe and re-engineered it to form the basis for his own machines. The company would go on to find almost unprecedented success, ultimately taking its place amongst the Big Four of jukebox manufacturing, joining the likes of Wurlitzer, Seeburg, and the American Musical Instrument Company (commonly known as AMI).

By this time, listening to jukeboxes was quickly becoming the new thing for much of contemporary America. The revolution was beginning to take off. It’s where, incidentally, the term jukebox first arose, although its etymology is disputed.

The 1940s – the Golden Age begins

The post-war years marked a meteoric rise in popularity for jukeboxes, and it’s not hard to see why. With their vibrant colors and all-encompassing sound, jukeboxes were the perfect encapsulation of jubilant celebration, of euphoria and joie de vivre. They certainly made welcome sights for the survivors of the war. Exhausted by years of global chaos and turmoil, they were ready to start truly living again.

And live they did. By the middle of the 1940s, it’s estimated that as many as ¾ of records produced in America went straight into jukeboxes, and their Golden Age had begun. With revolutionary new designs, bright colors and decorations, the 40s also saw some brilliant new innovations. It was during this time that Rock-Ola debuted the wall box systems, which could be used in conjunction with the full-sized jukeboxes.

And of course, what holds true for modern films and music also holds true for jukeboxes; namely, that a little bit of controversy never did sales any harm. Parents thought that swing and jazz music was a particularly bad influence on their children and directed some of their ire at the machines. Predictably, this only made them even more popular amongst rebellious teenagers, especially since they were so often housed in dive bars and low-class establishments – the perfect place to meet the bad boys your mother doesn’t like.

In 1948, another revolution hit, in the form of the 45rpm record, which changed the face of the jukebox industry.

The 1950s – the Golden Age of Jukeboxes, and dawning Silver Age

The 1950s are universally considered to be the global height of jukebox popularity, and there was hardly a diner or bar across the United States that would be seen without one. As far as the owners were concerned, they made good business sense. After all, live bands were expensive, and jukeboxes were cheap to operate and maintain while drawing huge crowds to their stunning visuals and sound.

The rise of the classic American diner, in particular, is thought to have helped cultivate the super-cool image of contemporary jukeboxes in the 1950s. With their Formica tables, chrome, plush leather, and neon signs, they complemented the jukebox aesthetic perfectly. It’s easy to see why the Bubbler designs were common sights – with their effortless blend of beauty and sophistication, but also fun and vibrancy, they were the natural choice for music in these ultra-hip venues. (Certainly, artists like Elvis and Buddy Holly, and the rapid rise of rock and roll music didn’t hurt either.)

It was also during this period when jukeboxes started to see some of the most fascinating and sought-after designs ever created. The machines became ever more showy and elaborate, with glinting silver finishes, chrome tailfins and front grilles – design features which are often seen as echoing the designs of popular contemporary automobiles. (Even today, many jukeboxes we stock here at Rock-Ola are strongly influenced by classic American culture – just take a look at our Harley Davidson Bubbler or our timeless Coca Cola Bubbler machines!)

Some music historians believe that 1950 marked the start of the Silver Age of jukeboxes, but like many such ideas, this is hotly disputed, and the definition changes depending on who you ask. What’s undeniable, though, is the advances made in that time. Not just with the designs, but also the technology; 100 titles became the new standard, a far cry from the single selection available just half a century ago! 

The modern face of jukeboxes 

The white-hot popularity of jukeboxes started to cool towards the 1970s, and even the Big Four started to scale down their operations. Now, we have music devices small enough to fit in the palm of your hand, with potentially thousands of song choices. But even with the invention of MP3 players and iPads, the classic Bubbler jukebox has not been relegated to history. With its curved top, entrancing colors and pristine oak exterior, the Bubbler has become an icon that defines an era – a true piece of modern Americana. 

Today, many of the old manufacturers have entirely gone out of business, or survive through subsidiaries. Now, we here at Rock-Ola are proud to be the world’s only manufacturer of the authentic American jukebox. Recently acquired by British entrepreneur Alexander Walder Smith, we’ve still got big plans for our jukeboxes as we take them to the next phase of history. Over the last few years, we’ve adapted our designs with modern technology such as CD players and Sonos connectivity.

This commitment to innovation has also recently helped us produce another revolutionary design; a high-tech update of the classic Vinyl Bubbler. We’re very proud of it, and we hope you enjoy it as much as we do. You can find it listed for sale right here on our homepage, as well as other iconic Bubblers in our expansive range. We’re already taking pre-orders, so don’t hesitate to get in touch.

As for the future… who knows what lies in store, but let’s just say our product team is SMART!

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