Engineering's
Jukebox Heroes


June 2013

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From its illicit rise to popularity in Prohibition-era speakeasies to its heyday in the Swing and Rock-n-Roll years to its digital-age demise, the jukebox did as much as a machine possibly could to shape twentieth century music and culture. The iconic jukeboxes produced between the late 1920s and the early 1950s are exemplars of mid-century design, but to engineers and avid collectors, what’s inside is just as beautiful.

The jukebox arose in the late 1920s from technologies associated with low-brow amusements in the nation’s carnivals, casinos, and penny arcades. But the high-level technical challenges and abundant growth in the jukebox field attracted some of the most capable engineers of their time to the industry. Manufacturers built strong in-house engineering and design teams to get the edge in a fiercely competitive market.

Seeburg’s Chicago factory. Image: www.jukeboxhistory.info

 

 

Names like Albinus G. Bodoh and Paul Fuller may not be household words in the music industry, but to jukebox fanatics like Mike Zuccaro, they are the engineering world’s jukebox heroes. The San Diego-based jukebox historian, technician, and collector has tracked down and interviewed many of the last remaining engineers and designers who created the great machines to learn and preserve their secrets. For him, it’s about more than jukeboxes. It’s a deep appreciation for their spirit of ingenuity and commitment to quality. “That’s why these jukeboxes are still operating today,” he says.

Jukebox designers and engineers had their work cut out for them. In addition to the required mechanisms for coin-operation, song selection, record handling, and playback, the machines had to be robust enough to play continually with minimal maintenance, withstand the temblors of a dance floor packed with jumping jitterbuggers, and create enough volume to compete with the din of a rowdy bar room. And because watching the machine grab and queue up a record was part of their appeal, the machines had to put their Rube Goldberg-worthy mechanisms on full view. How a company’s engineers dealt with these challenges could determine a company’s longevity in what was then a high-stakes, cut-throat industry.

History

In the days when pocket change had real purchasing power, revenues from jukebox sales added up to serious money. By some estimates, two million jukeboxes were sold during the industry’s golden age from the 1930s to the early 1950s, making the technology a driving force in popular music. These statistics reflect an era before television, when dancing in public gathering places was central to the nation’s social life. Only the best night spots could afford to pay a full live orchestra. Jukeboxes, on the other hand, actually produced revenue for the proprietor. Jukeboxes sprung up everywhere, from high-class eateries to the corner drugstore to the lowest of the roadside honky-tonks. “Jukeboxes were absolutely instrumental in selling music in those days,” Zuccaro says. “It’s how a lot of people heard music.”

Automatic Musical Instruments, Binghamton, NY, introduced the first proper jukebox – the National Automatic Selective Phonograph – in 1927, setting off a flurry of competition. Although a number of upstarts briefly entered the market, the enduring four players during the peak years were AMI, Rock-Ola, Seeburg, and Wurlitzer. 

Selection control for Wurlitzer’s innovative Simplex selector system. Image: Jitterbuzz.com

Four Fantastic Jukeboxes

The Bubbler: The visual synonym for an old-time jukebox today is probably the Wurlitzer 1015 “Bubbler,” designed by Paul M. Fuller. As the government lifted its wartime restrictions on the use of metals and polymeric materials for non-essential items in 1946-47, Fuller graced the 1015 with its trademark neon rainbow of kinetic colored lights, accented by an artful use of translucent Catalin plastic. Functionality took a giant step forward with the Simplex selection system, where records were stacked in a cylindrical tower that moved up and down to connect the selected record to a stationary grabber arm that would place it on a turntable.

The Select-o-Matic: In the late 1940s, the growing use of vinyl in record making led to the development of the 45 rpm record, which transformed the music industry and set the stage for rock-n-roll’s onslaught in the early 1950s. With a top-flight engineering team led by Mahlon W. Kenney and Al Bodoh, Seeburg was the first jukebox maker to anticipate the changes ahead. The company rolled out a series of firsts that would place it at the top of the market for the next decade. “They were the kings of the business from 1948 on,” Zuccaro says, citing innovations like the model M100A, which doubled the number of song selections possible in a standard jukebox. The secret was its sideways-moving Select-o-Matic record carriage, which accommodated a row of 50 double-sided records positioned vertically. The carriage traveled back and forth between twin playback units – one for the A-sides the other for the flip sides – for a total of 100 songs.

The AMI Continental 1 Jukebox. Image: www.jukeboxhistory.info

Rock-Ola: Entering the jukebox fray in 1935, Rock-Ola hit it big with its opulently designed, high-fidelity machines. The company held its own against Wurlitzer and Seeburg, but was the dominant player in one unusual and all-but-forgotten niche: telephone jukeboxes. The company’s Mystic Music telephone jukebox held the then-standard 12 selections but also gave customers access to a virtually unlimited range of songs transmitted to the jukebox over telephone lines from a remote call center equipped with a large record library and request-taking operators.

Experts Choice – the AMI Continental: Zuccaro does not hesitate when asked to reveal his own personal favorite jukebox of all time. “The Continental,” he says. “It was the sexiest, zoomiest machine of them all.” AMI’s most sci-fi hi-fi appeared in 1961 at the height of the Space Race. “If George Jetson had a jukebox, it would be the AMI Continental.”

Michael MacRae is an independent writer.

If George Jetson owned a jukebox, it would be the AMI Continental,

Mike Zuccaro, vintage jukebox expert

 
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