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Put Another Nickel In…

The history and development of the jukebox, and how it kick-started the beginning of rock 'n' roll

Somewhere in its early years, the coin operated record player acquired the name “jukebox.” There are several theories about the origin.

The most accepted is that the word “juke” is a corruption of the word “jook,” an African American slang term for dancing. The source of the music for this dancing would have been called a “jookbox.”

A second version is that “jook” meant “sex” which may have made sense since brothels were some of the first establishments to install jukeboxes, thus replacing the piano player. A third source of the word may have been from the term “jute,” or “jute joints” where jute pickers would relax, drink and dance.

Whatever the source of its name, the jukebox of the 1920s was generally associated with “speakeasies” and the “low-life” of prohibition since they were featured entertainment in such places.

To pay to hear a record played first started through the entrepreneurial activities of carnival and penny arcade operators who made their own recordings and then charged admission to hear them on the newly invented gramophone. It was in response to requests by this group of users that the phonograph/gramophone manufacturers began to produce prerecorded product.

This was an unexpected life-line for the Columbia company that in 1890 seemed headed for liquidation, because the intended use of the phonograph as a dictating machine had been a dismal flop. Columbia and Edison began to realize that their market was somewhere else. They also recognized that in order to sell players, they had to produce and manufacture prerecorded product that the public wanted to hear.

Initially the preferred programs for coin-operated players were comic songs, bands, monologues, and whistling. The revenues from these “pay for play” machines was amazing in light of the fact that the quality was poor and the selection meagre. In 1891, some machines earned up to 14 dollars a day—a lot of money at the time.

A penny arcade from the early 20th century.

While accepting there was a market for coin operated carnival players, Edison feared they might create the impression that the phonograph was only a toy. His worries were unjustified, since the showman-operated players cultivated a consumer appetite for recorded music and a desire for home players.

As the turn of the century approached, mainstreet penny and nickel arcades were becoming an increasingly popular center for entertainment. There were hundreds of different coin operated amusements. The most popular of these were those that played music. Into this market came the nickelodeon and the jukebox.

The first jukebox appeared close on the heels of the introduction of the phonograph. Louis Glas installed an Edison cylinder system at the San Francisco Royal Palace in 1889.

The Automatic Entertainer from the John Gabel Company.

In 1906, the Automatic Entertainer, which used flat disks recently invented by Berliner, was introduced by the John Gabel Company. The system was entirely mechanical but required regular winding of its spring mechanism. It was popular in spite of the poor quality.

In Paris, at the Pathe Salon du Phonograph, patrons could choose a musical selection, which would be played for them from the floor below where there were a battery of players. As in San Francisco, they would hear their selection through long listening tubes connected to the player’s diaphragm.

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Composer Claude Debussy, after hearing this system for a few coins, was concerned that the low cost of the disk and its availability would have the effect of cheapening the music. He did, however, acknowledge that the discs preserved a certain magic.

In 1913, Debussy wrote: “In a time like ours, when the genius of engineers has reached such undreamed proportions, one can hear famous pieces of music as easily as one can buy a glass of beer. Should we not fear this domestication of sound, this magic preserved in a disc that anyone can awaken at will? Will it not mean a diminishing of the secret forces of the art, which until now have been considered indestructible? “.

Debussy, like so many other classically trained musicians had fears that this new technology would impact on his beloved art, and probably his concert income. The jukebox and nickelodeon changed the way people heard the music of the day by placing it within reach of the masses.

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