Born in Delaware in 1845, 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 (much like Edison). 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.
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 "Down Went McGinty" and "The Rip Van Winkle Polka"—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 had taken in more than $4,000 (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 (his indictment for bribery aside). Louis Glass died in 1924 a well-off titan of industry, his contribution as the inventor of the jukebox largely forgotten.
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 "Automatic Entertainer" made by John Gabel provided a choice of 24 different selections of music. With electricity readily available in cities by the early 1920s, phonograph technology took off, which lead to the golden age of jukeboxes in the 1930s. This is also when the "coin-operated phonograph" took on the much catchier name "jukebox," which likely comes from an African slang word meaning "to dance" or "acting disorderly."
The jukebox's next act came at the speed of 45 revolutions per minute. 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 one promo. These seven-inch vinyls became the standard-bearer in the industry and in jukeboxes around the world. Seeburg's "Select-O-Matic" was one of the first jukeboxes to be specifically made for 45s and soon ruled the industry. Their secret, according to the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, 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 the chrome used in the machine's design during the era), Seeburg would be joined by AMI, Wurlitzer, and Rock-Ola as the major players of jukebox manufacturing. At its height in the 1950s, there were an estimated 750,000 jukeboxes in the United States spitting out tunes and getting toes tapping.
Jukeboxes continued to entertain through the 1980s and into the 1990s (albeit with CDs instead of 45s), but by the early 2000s, digital jukeboxes started to take over. Nostalgia aside, "a flat screen on a wall" is not necessarily a bad thing. After all, digital jukeboxes provide a seemingly limitless selection and generate more revenue for local bars than traditional jukeboxes ever did. With constant connectivity and apps that allow users better control, 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 about a really drunk Irishmen.