• Heather Davis

The Jukebox: A History of Authenticity, Innovation & Self-Expression

Updated: Mar 6


Rock & roll has always defined and prided itself in its authenticity.

Since the late 40’s, screaming guitars and teens have rocked hard against the opposing forces of commercialism, of selling out. Of pop music. Quintessential Americana, the jukebox has come to symbolize this every-generation youthful defiance. But don’t let him fool you: he’s older than his ID says

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Originally invented in 1890, the word “jukebox” wouldn’t even arrive for another 50 years, then deriving from southern juke joints named after the Gullah word meaning rowdy, wicked and disorderly. There were years of technical iterations before the machine’s reputation descended into the origins of its name and became synonymous with rock & roll. Back when it was civilized, it spun classical, opera and swing music.

The great-grandfather of the jukebox (twice removed) was named the Coin Actuated Attachment for Phonograph. Talk about needing a nickname.

Early patrons with a nickel could listen to a one-selection-per-machine phonograph through one of four listening tubes.

In 1927, the Automated Musical Instrument company (AMI) introduced one of the first jukeboxes offering a selection of music. Beginning the following year, Justus P. Seeburg offered first the coin-operated Audiophone, with eight selections each played on its own turntable, and later the Selectophone with an even ten.

Meanwhile, Canadian-turned-Chicagoan and driven entrepreneur, David Cullen Rockola followed the destiny of his own surname with an important patent in 1934. His device could pick out a selection from a record stack, play it and put it back. I know a tween I wish could do as much. After years in scales, vending and pinball machines, it would be the Rock-Ola Jukebox that would put him on the map.

He saw the repeal of Prohibition in 1932 as the opportunity to trade on the perfect marriage of music and booze. The now-legal bars and clubs helped feed the 400,000 Rock-Ola jukeboxes sold beginning in 1935. By the mid-1940s, 75% of American records landed in jukeboxes. The 1950’s brought the heyday of the machine with diners and soda shops abound. The decade also introduced the 45rpm record and with it, significant design changes.

One of the world’s most recognizable jukebox brands to this day, Rock-Ola went into full production after WWII and has never stopped. At 95-years old, it seems David Rockola decided to finally retire. In 1992 he sold his company to Antique Apparatus Company which continues his legacy today. It is a Rock-Ola jukebox showing off in Vintage Rock.


Though production is way down from its peak, these classic beauties - now 100 years old - have continued to evolve along with the times: from LPs to CDs and now playing MP3s.

As technology improves and marches on, it gets smaller, faster, cheaper – all of which is bad news for the old jukebox.

The portable radio, cassette tapes and now thousands of songs available to stream on-demand – all have impacted the industry.

It’s probably been awhile, but grab a drink and go pick a selection.

On behalf of generations: Cheers! to the jukebox for playing everybody’s favorite song - and for making us listen to everyone else’s in the meantime - while we impatiently awaited our selection in queue.


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