How Jukeboxes Work

A retro couple choosing a song at the jukebox.
Jukeboxes were great sources of entertainment. powerofforever / Getty Images

Thanks to digital innovations, the Internet, tiny MP3 players and smartphones, we can choose to be awash in a sea of music, all day, every day. Indeed, if you came of age during the MP3 and YouTube revolution, you might find it hard to imagine not having nearly instantaneous access to every song ever recorded. But the concept of playing specific songs on demand all started with the jukebox.

In the early to mid-1900s, jukeboxes were literally the life of the party, in speakeasies and diners throughout the United States. Everyone wanted music, but radio didn't really suit every situation; broadcasts didn't let an audience immediately pick and choose the tunes necessary for working dance parties into a feverish pitch. Live bands were always an option, of course. But booking a band took time and money that a lot of establishments didn't have.


In this pre-iPod era, blasting a version of "In the Jailhouse Now" wasn't as simple as scrolling through a battery-powered device that fit in the palm of your hand. Instead of the glow of a tiny digital screen, people basked in the multi-colored glow of jukeboxes that measured in feet instead of centimeters. They didn't click furiously through a series of hierarchical sub-menus on a tiny silvery box; they leaned with their forearms resting on ornate wood, glass and steel cabinets to peruse a jukeboxes list of songs.

Like so many digital music toys today, the jukebox revolutionized music in terms of culture and technology. It's partly because of that revolution that so many people romanticize and yearn nostalgically for the days when a single music-playing machine could transform a drab, quiet tavern into a joyful (or sometimes mournful), magical place that filled ears and hearts with the power of music.

Keep reading and you'll see how jukeboxes emerged from old-school technologies and capitalized on societal changes, becoming one of the most recognized symbols of the 1950's.


From Phono to Mono

This is the Wurlitzer 1015, one of the most famous and iconic jukeboxes ever. Its jazzy styling echoed society’s post-World War II euphoria.
Courtesy Gibson

Before jukeboxes, there were phonographs, a brainchild of none other than Thomas Edison. These machines accepted grooved wax cylinders, in which the grooves represented recordings. As the cylinder rotated, a needle traced the grooves and vibrated to reproduce sounds on the cylinders. In short, they worked similarly to contemporary vinyl record players.

Phonographs were simple devices, but they helped introduce a new way of paying for music. It all started with the aptly named "nickel-in-the-slot" machines (later known as nickelodeon or automatic phonographs) built by Louis Glass in San Francisco.


Glass first introduced his coin-operated phonograph at the Palais Royal Restaurant in 1889. Curious customers stood around the machine, inserted a nickel and then listened to short (roughly two minute) songs. The machines were often hand-wound and used springs to move internal mechanisms, but battery-powered types were available as well.

In this time before amplifiers, big speakers and electronic headphones, only stethoscope-like earphones made music audible. Once the song ended, you wiped off the earphones with towel and the next eager group of listeners took their seats. Others featured a small horn that played music just loud enough for a small, relatively quiet room. Recordings were limited and the cylinders were swapped manually, so songs changed only periodically.

The technology might have been rather rudimentary, but the pay-for-play concept was revolutionary. Glass made more and more machines and to keep up with demand for this new type of music player. As a result, they got more dependable, easier to make and the purchase price dropped to a point that even small bars could afford them.

Those bars and cafes were often called juke joints, especially in the Southeastern United States, where the word juke had been a part of African-American lexicon for many years. Juking was slang for dancing – or ultimately just cutting loose – after a long, exhausting day of labor.

Juke joints gained reputations as rowdy places with loud music and loud parties, thanks in part to the new music machines that fueled the fun, even when the band was too tired to play or too expensive to hire. In time, these machines become known as jukeboxes.

But there were a few notable developments that happened before jukeboxes really hit the mainstream. On the next page you'll see how other technologies put really serious jive in the jukes.


Revolution of 78

Convenient flat discs eventually caused the demise of phonograph cylinders. Today, you can still buy brand-new jukeboxes that automatically change vinyl records.
Courtesy Gibson

Phonographs and wax cylinders started the jukebox party. But gramophone discs and amplifiers rocketed jukeboxes to rock star status.

Gramophone discs had the same kinds of grooves as cylinders, but they came in flat disc form, making them less unwieldy and cheaper to manufacture. A format war of sorts (think cassettes versus CDs) ignited for a few years in the early 1900s but discs quickly won out, specifically 78 RPM (revolutions per minute) discs that became the go-to standard.


Disc format made record changing easier, too. Machines like Gabel's Automatic Entertainer even had a record changer so that customers could choose from multiple 24 recordings. Thanks to its totally automatic machine functionality, the Entertainer is considered the forerunner of all modern jukeboxes.

Yet even fancy song selection capabilities couldn't propel the jukebox into true popularity, for a couple of reasons. One, coin-operated player pianos were exceedingly popular throughout the country, and people gathered en masse to watch these curiosities. The second problem was volume. Even with clunky earphones, phonographs produced tinny, soft sound that was often overwhelmed by ambient public noise, much less the chaos of beer-soaked patrons. Coin-operated phonograph production stalled.

It wasn't until 1927 that the jukebox boom, figuratively and literally. That's the year that Automated Musical Instruments (AMI) first integrated an electrical amplifier into a jukebox. Now, customers could bypass ridiculous earphones and pump loud music just about any place. Instead of standing or sitting stationary, they could dance, flail about and generally unleash their rock-and-roll demons at full volume, especially as Prohibition ended in 1933.

But just as better jukebox technology and more abundant records were catching fire with café and bar owners and their patrons, the Great Depression took hold. Music sales nosedived for years, down from $75 million in 1929 to only $5 million four years later [source: Encycopedia].

In spite of the Depression, the sales of amplifier-equipped jukeboxes actually increased. And then jukeboxes happened to be at the right place at the right time. On the next page, you'll see how social and technological forces collided into a flashpoint for a jukebox explosion.


Powering up Pop Culture

The Wurlitzer Peacock is another classic. Restored versions of this popular machine sell for thousands of dollars
Courtesy Gibson

During the Depression, jukebox makers struggled onward, and their persistence paid off. In 1933, there were maybe 25,000 machines in the United States. By 1940, there were well over 300,000 [Source: Segrave].

It was then that the big names in jukeboxes showed their domination: AMI, Wurlitzer, Rock-Ola and Seeberg. With edgy marketing campaigns and hordes of salespeople, all of them pushed to stay ahead of each other in a music technology arms race.


Then a real-life arms race, in the form of World War II, roiled the industry. Jukebox manufacturing stopped as the federal government rationed materials like metal, which could be used for military purposes. Rather than idle their workers and machines, companies like Wurlitzer retooled their factories to produce war goods instead of music machines.

Once the war ended, though, military men returned home in droves, and post-war partying began in earnest. The jukebox was there, and its fortunate timing helped turn these music machines into an icon of a generation that grew up in the 1950's.

Jukeboxes are so ingrained into post-World War II culture that period films and TV shows set in the 1950's frequently use jukeboxes as props. These machines weren't passive furniture. They were gaudy, loud centerpieces of social interaction.

Early jukeboxes were designed in the likeness of the first radios, often featuring wooden cabinets. But jukebox manufacturers wanted their products to scream out their technological edginess and modernity. Wurlitzer, in particular, became known for pushing the boundaries of machine designs. They often featured mesmerizing bubble tubes, polarized and pulsating lights and artful cabinets. The most beautiful are now collector's items worth many thousands of dollars.

One of the most popular jukeboxes of all time is the Wurlitzer 1015, which blended wood cabinetry with space-age lights and chrome flourishes, as well as a see-through dome that let customers watch the changer move between albums.

Aesthetics were one thing – but the social impact of jukeboxes was perhaps even more profound. After the turn of the century, music, like the rest of society, was segregated by race lines. Radio stations often refused to music recorded by black artists.

But jukeboxes helped to level the playing field, as individual business owners could stock their machines with any music that they thought might draw more customers. In doing so, jukeboxes introduced untold numbers of people to a minority group's tastes. In short, jukeboxes provided financial incentive for black artists to share more and more of their artistry, all of which made pop music more diverse.


Rock and Load

Creating a machine that could accept coins, allow customers to select specific songs and then play them loud and clear enough to fill an entire building was in itself an amazing engineering feat. That's especially true when you consider that this was an era devoid of microchips, robots and in many places, electricity.

Developing dependable coin activation wasn't easy. A machine had to work when a customer dropped a valid coin into its slot, but it had to reject cleverly designed fakes, or slugs. They also had to resist vandalism and dirty environments. All of this was just for starters.


Customers pressed buttons that corresponded to the songs they wanted to hear. Then jukebox had to play those tunes in the right sequence.

Records were stacked inside the machine, suspended in individual rings called carriers. When a customer made a selection, a select bar rose along the stack until arriving at the right record; then the appropriate carrier swung out from the stack. Finally, the turntable would rise up to the record, begin spinning it and lower the needle to begin playback.

The real trick was making a machine that remembered which songs to play and when to play them, and this was a matter of clever mechanical engineering. Many jukeboxes had gear-like components (called cams) organized onto a memory drum. Just like the record stack, this drum was a cylinder and stacked with cams that corresponded to each record's carrier.

Selecting a record caused the cam for that album to rotate. As the select bar moved up and down the record stack, it stopped when it reached a cam that had been rotated. Once the song played, that cam returned to its original position and the select bar moved on to the next album. Fancier jukeboxes had additional mechanisms that flipped each record, allowing the turntable to play both sides, ultimately doubling the number of songs that the machine could play.

As compact discs replaced records in the 1990's, the mechanisms for changing discs actually remained somewhat similar to those used in previous decades. But the CD format offered far more songs and more consistent playback.


Jukin' Into a New Age

Jukeboxes keep evolving. These days, Internet-connected machines let you play just about any song you can think of, and some even have integrated karaoke capabilities.
Courtesy TouchTunes

You're in a murky, smoke-filled biker bar, one that's way off of the main highway in West Texas. Tattooed, grungy men and women play a quiet game of pool. They exchange menacing glances with outsiders. Suddenly, the Spice Girls begin blaring from the Internet jukebox. Shortly thereafter, the clueless dolt who played "Wannabe" is dying a slow, painful death in the bar's back alley.

Contemporary jukeboxes are often wall-mounted boxes with a touchscreen that let you choose from songs stored to a hard drive. Some might take quarters, but they all accept credit cards. Many are connected to the Internet and let you pick from thousands of additional songs, although those selections might cost you twice as much as those on the local drive.


Plenty of people are ambivalent about Internet jukeboxes, in part because some feel that these machines homogenize gathering places. Now, you can play Britney Spears in a biker bar (at your own risk), whereas in the past, that same bar may have stocked only CDs with Hank Williams and Slayer.

There's also a weird flip side to the idea that Internet jukeboxes offer a bigger selection of songs. Due to copyright and licensing issues, many artists and songs just aren't available. With a CD jukebox, though, a bar owner could load discs with just about any music they preferred.

But digital is just easier. Because of digital music's proliferation and convenience, jukeboxes that play vinyl records and even CDs are getting rarer by the day. Mechanical parts break, and it's harder and harder to find replacements and people with the expertise to repair them.

Plus, newfangled jukes have features like built-in karaoke, as well as the ability to capture and print pictures on the spot. Those kinds of features hold great appeal to a generation accustomed to always-on multimedia.

Some contemporary jukeboxes are built to recall their glory days, complete with fanciful curves, lights and glass ... but with a digital twist, in which you can connect a handheld music device. These machines make not give new life to jukeboxes, but they harken to a different era – one in which music-on-demand first captured the attentions of music-starved people the world over.


Author's Note

Even though I'm an ardent, lifelong music fan, I've had only occasional brushes with old-school mechanical jukeboxes. Always-on Internet radio, CDs and MP3s I understand; records, well, not so much.

I have a hard time imagining a world in which I can't always find and play the exact song I want, anytime and anyplace. But it's not hard to see how the glowing lights and big sound of jukeboxes could entrance an entire generation. Their high-tech visual appeal and the ability to play some of your favorite songs – on demand – must have been entirely intoxicating for the young and old alike.


These days, our digital music contraptions let us listen both in solitude and huge social gathering places. Such tiny personal jukeboxes definitely change the way we hear songs, and they'll likely alter the course of music culture, too, just like big old Wurlitzer jukeboxes once did.

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