The scene is the Palais Royale Saloon in San Francisco, November 23, 1889. Entrepreneur Louis Glass has installed a machine destined to become an overnight sensation, and find a permanent spot in the psyche of the nation, even the world. He called his device the “nickel-in-the-slot player” a name that would certainly need a bit of massaging in the future.
What it played was music. Inside a handsome oak cabinet was an electric phonograph. Four stethoscope-like tubes were attached to it, each operating individually after being activated by the insertion of a coin. Four different listeners could be plugged into the same song at the same time! In a nod to sanitation, towels were supplied to patrons so they could wipe off the end of the tube after each listening.
The success of the “nickel-in-the-slot player” eventually spelled the demise of the player piano, then the most common way of providing popular music to saloon patrons, notorious for their love of music.
Most machines were capable of holding only one musical selection, the automation coming from the ability to play that one selection at will. Obviously, after each patron had listened to that one song several times, the novelty wore off and the player went idle. In 1918, another entrepreneur solved that problem with an apparatus that automatically changed records. Ten years later, enter Justus P. Seeburg, who combined an electrostatic loudspeaker with a coin-operated record player that gave the listener a choice of eight records.
This machine was pretty cumbersome: it had eight separate turntables mounted on a rotating Ferris wheel-like device, allowing patrons to select from eight different records. Later versions included Seeburg’s Selectophone, with 10 turntables mounted vertically on a spindle. By maneuvering the tone arm up and down, the customer could select from 10 different records.
There was still no decent name for these devices. That came in the 1940s, when person or persons unknown dubbed it a jukebox, a reference to juke house, slang for a bawdy house, a favorite location for the devices. All that remained necessary in the evolution of the jukebox was the addition of a healthy helping of rock and roll.