How the Jukebox Got Its Groove

The story of Louis Glass, the original jukebox hero.

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Walk by 303 Sutter Street and you'll find an typical of 21st century San Francisco. In 1889, though, this address was one of many seedy gin joints that dotted the city. Nothing about Palais Royale Saloon made it particularly remarkable (in fact, it would be out of business within a year), save for one thing. It was the site of mechanical history.

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On November 23, 1889, a 44-year-old wild-haired inventor named Louis Glass installed in a corner of the bar his newest-fangled contraption: a coin-operated fitted inside a beautiful oak cabinet. Requiring a nickel to play and having four stethoscope-like listening tubes snaking out, Glass's creation was met with curious glances and willing customers. This was the world's first jukebox.

"[The tubes] went into people's ears, so there were handkerchiefs hanging on the side of the machine to wipe off the tubes."

These days, the true record-shuffling jukebox is an obsolete tech, an object of memory. "Jukeboxes have migrated now. They are all digital," says Glenn Streeter, owner of , which is the the last jukebox factory in the US and supplies the 50's themed restaurant chain with its machines, "They're just a flat screen on a wall." But there was a time when Louis Glass's invention changed the way Americans listened. Costing mere cents per play, it was much cheaper than buying a home unit. And there was something magical about watching the mechanism work through the glass. It was like having a window into wonder.

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A young woman stands in the glow of a multicolored Juke box in the late 1960's.
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Tinfoil Sounds 

On Christmas Eve of 1877, Thomas Edison filed a patent for "Improvement in Phonograph or Speaking Machines." It marked the first time . Edison was not a man to keep such greatness to himself. The story goes that several days before filing the patent, with his phonograph and turned the crank. Out of the machine came a voice that inquired as to everyone's well-being and asked if they were impressed with this invention. The short recording closed by wishing all a good night.

In hindsight, we know that recorded sound was one of the most important inventions of all time. But it's not always clear at the moment of their creation how inventions—even clearly remarkable ones—will change the world. That's true of their inventors as well. According to , Edison thought of the machine as a novelty.

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"(Edison) recorded (the message) on tinfoil... If you take the foil off the drum, it's so sensitive and delicate, you can't get it back on the same phonograph it was made on... it was a one-time thing," says Koenigsberg, "The phonograph originally went nowhere because the material that it was recorded on wasn't ready... (Edison) got three patents and dropped it for the electric light."   

While Edison eventually came back to the phonograph, it was another inventor who first monetized it.

Stephen Lapekas playing a song on a juke box.
Getty ImagesStan Wayman

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Coin-operated machines have a surprisingly long history. The first so-called "vending machine" we know about dates to 1st century AD Egypt, dispensing of all things holy water. As , a person would drop a token into the dispenser and the token's weight would push against a door-opening lever. Then, through the open door, out came holy water. About 1,800 years later, an Englishman named Percival Everitt . In the last two decades of the 19th century, inventors filed a rash of patents for coin-operated machines, including Louis Glass's 1889 "Coin-Actuated Attachment for Phonographs."

Glass moved west to northern California as a young boy. In 1868 he started working as a Western Union telegraph operator, where he became fascinated with how the technology worked (). Saving his earnings, he bought interest in two newly formed telephone companies and eventually co-founded the Pacific Phonographic Company. Right around this time he developed what would become the first jukebox. Glass picked the Palais Royal Saloon to premiere his invention for two simple reasons: He knew the proprietor and it was mere blocks from his shop, lessening the distance he would have to lug the heavy contraption.

Louis Glass patent
U.S. Patent Office

Glass's machine looks nothing like what we've come to know as a jukebox. The phonograph was encased in a lead-lined oak cabinet and had a 25-lb. sulfuric acid battery that provided electricity through wires to the motor. It could only play one wax cylinder at a time and had to be changed manually, meaning the music options—which probably included 1889 hits like " and —were quite limited. One clever tidbit: As part of the deal with the saloons, he had added an announcement at the end of each cylinder that told patrons "to go over to the bar and get a drink."

Amplification was poor, hence the four listening tubes. "It was a nickel for each tube, so you wouldn't want to join when (the song) was half-way through," Koenigsberg says, "Also, (the tubes) went into people's ears, so there was the not-quite-aesthetic pleasantry of handkerchiefs hanging on the side of the machine to wipe off the tubes." Nonetheless, the machine was a San Francisco sensation. A few weeks later, Glass placed a second machine in the same saloon. On December 18, 1889, he filed his application for the patent and quickly went to work making more.

Over the next 18 months, Glass produced and placed at least 13 more of these early jukeboxes (or "nickel-in-the-slot" phonographs as he called them at the time) in bars, restaurants, and even ferries traveling between Oakland and San Francisco. None of these machines (or any part of them) are thought to still be in existence today. At a trade conference in Chicago in May 1890, Glass claimed his machines (about $100,000 in today's currency), ending his pronouncement with an arrogant flourish by telling the others in attendance to "figure out the details yourself."

Glass shouldn't have been so boastful, because while his innovation was certainly impressive, it was quickly overtaken by new technologies. Undoubtedly fueled by Glass's success, Edison came back to the phonograph in the summer of 1890 to improve it and design a version for home use. By 1891, the U.S. Patent Office had 18 patents relating to coin attachments for phonographs, all theoretically an improvement on Glass's original. Glass tried to keep up by filing a patent in 1894 for a new spring mechanism that allowed the phonograph to run for a longer period of time, an idea also aimed at the home market but of which very few were actually manufactured. When the profits from his saloon jukeboxes tailed off, Glass refocused his attentions on being a telephone company executive, which he was quite successful at (). Louis Glass died in 1924 a well-off titan of industry, his contribution as the inventor of the jukebox largely forgotten.

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Getty ImagesKen Whitmore

The Silver Age

The jukebox moved on. By the turn of the century, coin-operated phonographs were offering customers a chance to pick between multiple wax cylinders and songs. In 1906, the provided a choice of 24 different selections of music. With , phonograph technology took off, which lead to the . This is also when the "coin-operated phonograph" took on the which likely comes from an African slang word meaning "to dance" or "acting disorderly."

The jukebox's next act came . Introduced in 1949 by RCA Victor, 45 RPM records were smaller, smoother and crisper than its predecessors. "Listen, compare, and you, too, will agree that RCA Victor's 45 RPM record is the finest and best ever made," proclaimed . These seven-inch vinyls became the standard-bearer in the industry and in jukeboxes around the world. was one of the first jukeboxes to be specifically made for 45s and soon ruled the industry. Their secret, according to the was "the sideways-moving Select-o-Matic record carriage," which stashed the records vertically and doubled the number of songs that could be played on the machine. During the jukebox's "silver age" (named as such in large part because of during the era), Seeburg would be joined by AMI, , and Rock-Ola as the major players of jukebox manufacturing. At its height in the 1950s, there were in the United States spitting out tunes and getting toes tapping.

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Jukeboxes continued to entertain through the 1980s and into the 1990s (albeit with CDs instead of 45s), but by the early 2000s, . Nostalgia aside, "a flat screen on a wall" is not necessarily a bad thing. After all, digital jukeboxes provide a seemingly limitless selection and than traditional jukeboxes ever did. With constant connectivity and apps that , there's an argument to be made that bar music has never been better.

But something has been lost. There's no more whirring of gears, no more mechanical arm and no more spinning 45s, and no more sticking a tube in your ear while standing next to three strangers and listening to a song .

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