Jukebox History: The Evolution Of The Jukebox

Jukebox History: The Evolution Of The Jukebox

 Jukebox history dates back over a century ago, preserving its special quality to remain relevant and popular even in today’s digital world. The way we primarily listen to music now can be traced all the way back to the late 1800s and the early iterations of the jukebox. Music technology has come a long way since then, but the nostalgia of its roots lives on. So what is a jukebox and what is the history of the machine?

The invention of the music playback method was discovered by Thomas Edison as an improvement to his phonograph machine. Initially, he recorded a message on tinfoil and cranked a handle to make it heard through the phonograph speaker, a time-consuming, sensitive task that seems like it’d be hard to replicate and definitely not applicable to meet the immediate demand of music listeners today. 

While Edison’s invention paved the path for records, CDs, and other music recordings that were to come, it was a person by the name of Louis Glass that put a spin on the machinery and created the first type of jukebox. Pictures of Glass’ original design, which he patented in 1889, is nothing like what you imagine today’s jukebox to look like. It was clunky both in weight and appearance. Jukebox production included a large sulfuric battery encased in a heavy oak cabinet with electric wires connected to the motor. 

Additionally, since a listener could only play one cylinder at a time, the music options were limited because each change was done manually. To get the traditional jukebox to work in public spaces, it required inserting a token or coin to activate its operation, much like a vending machine. Though the sound quality was poor and the workings of the machine itself cumbersome and inconvenient, the novelty was enough to inspire other inventors to improve upon this original contraption. 

Soon, others followed suit to build jukeboxes or coin-operated phonographs, such as Justice Seeburg and the Wurlitzer family. These innovations improved upon the sound, quality, design, and convenience to create a competitive edge. One of the key innovations was the introduction of an automatic cylinder with multiple song selections, which eliminated the need to manually change it after every song. Plus, there was no need to hand crank to turn the tunes, the sound was instantly manufactured by the machine. 

Updated Models Lead to Widespread Popularity 

Fast forward to the late 1940s, when records became more widely available. The term “jukebox” also became widely known during this time, deriving from the reference to juke joints, which originated from Gullah culture with the word “juke,” which means rowdy, disorderly, or wicked. With an eye-catching appearance and palpable sensation of the machine moving while music played fit perfectly for the crowds and places, the jukebox industry was booming and jukebox sales were in high demand. 

The updated jukeboxes made the selection and playing process for records even better. They transformed the popularity of this type of listening device from being available only for home entertainment to becoming staples in bars and other public places like entertainment establishments for a listening crowd. The design had been elevated to a slimmer model, evolving from the industrial look of the original prototypes. 

Early iterations were made of wood and chrome and gradually changed to include colorful light displays and rounded tops. All jukeboxes had a glass screen that encased the individual song listings labeled by letter and number. By inserting change or a token in the machine and selecting the song you wanted, it either began to immediately play or entered the rotation for any that it came after, and the rest as they say, is jukebox history. 

Revisiting the Past Through Jukebox Music 

Why do people enjoy jukeboxes so much? First, it’s a stroll down memory lane for those who grew up gathered around a traditional jukebox and waiting for their song to play. Searching the list for your favorite was a simple joy that made the listening experience all the more fun. Many social gatherings happened around the jukebox, from sock hops of the 1950s to the after-school meetups at video game arcades that and a jukebox in the corner, there’s a nostalgic element that preserves the feelings of listening to music in this way.

Second, the design is a draw for everyone. The unique look of the jukebox, especially now as an old-school relic, elicits curiosity. It’d be tough to pass up the opportunity to play a song on the jukebox if you were to see one in a restaurant or bar today. On the other hand, there’s novelty associated with the jukebox for those part of a younger demographic who may only know about the machine from pop culture references versus an in-person experience. 

The idea of using something their parents, grandparents, and other family members may have used to listen to music during decades past allows younger people to explore music and machinery that’s new to them while feeling more connected with family memories. All in all, though, seeing a jukebox simply signals pure fun regardless of the music selection. 

Keeping Jukeboxes Relevant in the Digital Age

Jukeboxes continued their reign, hitting a high point in the 1950s, and continuing showing up in dive bars, honky tonks, diners, and pubs into the early 2000s. The sight of a physical jukebox that is a coin operated machine and allows you to select records weren’t as widely found anymore, since they evolved into the digital version during this time. Mirroring the look of an oversized computer screen, the way of selecting songs from updated machines required inserting dollar bills and using a touchscreen to shuffle through songs offering the same concept but different appeal. 

Now, the yearning for the nostalgia of the original jukebox lives on with smaller, digital versions showing up at diner booths and reemerging in trendy bars. Digital jukeboxes that can fit on a desktop or living room shelf are also in demand mixing the old with the new. The benefit of the modern jukebox is that there’s plenty of room to play song after song, since it’s all digitally stored and streamed. 

Rather than having to house multiple records to play the best singles off each, it’s easy to curate your own personal playlist based on your musical preference, right in the comfort of your own home. This advantage seems like a given in today’s modern world, where technology moves swiftly to meet the immediacy of consumer demand. However, if it wasn’t for the early imaginings of Thomas Edison, the option wouldn’t have even been considered and become part of the mainstream today. Who knew that a phonograph that played staticky sounds, music, and messages would follow an evolutionary path to the crystal clear listening experience that we have today on even the most basic speakers and setups? 

It’s inspired many record labels and artists to put out remastered tracks so people can hear the change in sound based on how it was distributed and played when it debuted. However, the evolution of jukebox history isn’t solely about developing the best possible sound. It also focuses on creating the mood of the environment to create a well-rounded musical experience.

What Makes a Good Jukebox Song?

Though jukeboxes can now contain music from any genre, there are a few qualities that should be included in order to be considered a good jukebox song. First, there has to be the right musical energy, whether it’s a rousing country song or a slow, romantic melody, the best songs to play on a jukebox should evoke a feeling as soon as the first notes play. Choosing a song or playlist that sets the mood makes a difference in how well you’re able to enjoy what’s being played.

Second, a jukebox song should be memorable, through its rhythm, lyrics, or both. Everyone wants to join the collective singing of a chorus that everyone knows. That’s why songs like “Friends in Low Places” by Garth Brooks or “Sweet Caroline” by Neil Diamond continue to be crowd pleasers far past their debut. They’re too fun and catchy not to want to hum or sing along. 

Lastly, the best jukebox songs are ones that define the era of when they were released. Each decade has its own unique sound that builds upon the past and creates a whole new slew of hits with melodies that can be traced back to originating roots. Listening to music on a jukebox feels like taking a trip down memory lane and should be the kind of music that can transform you to another to place and time, if only for a few moments. 

As music technology continues to evolve and new ways of distributing sound are created, the jukebox will remain forever imprinted into the history books as one of the greatest musical inventions of all time. These musical sensations have come a long way from the hand crank and single cylinder model.  

Future generations may look back and consider the sheer size of the original jukebox impractical, but as with most trends, the hype surrounding the classic appreciation and nod to nostalgia will rise again, giving jukeboxes staying power for decades to come, in whatever form that may be. 


  1. https://electronics.howstuffworks.com/gadgets/audio-music/jukebox.htm
  2. https://www.popularmechanics.com/technology/gadgets/a21127/how-the-jukebox-got-its-groove/