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Short History Of The Humble Jukebox

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.

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.

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. 

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.

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