From pianolas to jukeboxes

In 1887, at the age of 16, Justus P. Seeburg (Sjoberg) left his homeland of Sweden to travel to the United States. His father who had been a prosperous merchant had fallen on hard times and the family was broke. Seeburg intended to find his fortune in the New World.

After completing an apprenticeship in the Smith and Barnes piano factory in Chicago he started his first job at the Markette Piano Company. Eventually moving to the C. S. Smith Piano Factory and thence to a position as superintendent at the Cable Piano Company where he started renting or operating in his own right. He tested piano players in several locations throughout Chicago and soon built up a considerable client base. Eventually he resigned from his job at the Piano Company and in 1902, providing his own small starting capital,formed his own company. The J. P. Seeburg Company was initially a success, the demand for electric piano players was growing and Seeburg established a sales office and display rooms in the Republic building in Chicago’s loop.

Model KD200

Along with the coin-operated electric piano players, Seeburg designed and produced the ‘Orchestrion’, an ingeniously restyled piano. Headded on the mechanically played voices of a violin, mandolin, flute, snare drum, cymbals, triangle and other percussive effects to create a multi-voiced keyboard.

In 1926 the availability of electrically recorded records and the development of amplified sound led to a growth in the market for recorded music. The Brunswick ‘Panatrope’ was the first all-electric home phonograph and it was clear that the market was moving awayfrom piano players. In 1927 the ‘Orchestrion’ was discontinued and theSeeburg Company developed their first phonograph. The ‘Melatone’ jukebox was a complete failure. The mechanism, designed by a Mr.Wilcox, broke the records; all of the machines, approximately a hundred, had to be recalled.

In 1928 the company revealed the ‘Audiophone’, an eight selection jukebox that worked by means of a pneumatic Ferris-wheel. Although very successful, the Ferris-wheel mechanism meant that the nickelodeon case was rather wide and Seeburg sometimes lost out to other companies because of the simple logistical problem of installing it in a small space. Production of the ‘Audiophone’ went right through intothe 1930’s when depression hit the country and the phonograph market dropped off rapidly. Seeburg fell into receivership in 1931, and began to diversify its interests.

Model M100C

Starting with coin meters for washing machines and games, such as gold digger and pinball, the J. P. Seeburg Company moved into the coin-operated vendor market. Developing cigarette vending machines,cold and hot drinks dispensers and the like kept the company in good running with their creditors and it bounced back in 1934 when they paid off most of their debts and developed a new automatic phonograph.This new machine utilised a new mechanism designed by Wilcox, which stacked the records with a two inch gap between each disc for the tonearm to move into. Unfortunately, due to error at the manufacturers the steel spindle for holding the records had not been pre-stressed and so frequently warped jamming the machine. By this time the 60 year old Justus handed the reins of the company to his son Noel Marshal Seeburg, although the creator of the company remained an active part of developments until his death in 1958, aged 87.

N. Marshall Seeburg had been brought up around the electrical innovations of his generation and the company received a much-needed shot in the arm. Seeburg proceeded to produce successful models of jukebox, including the ‘Gem’, the ‘Crown’, ‘Plaza’, ‘Casino’,’Regal’, and ‘Classic’. The new director in turn brought in new talent: M.W. Kenney, an engineer, Nils Miller, an industrial designer and Henry Roberts, sales manager. Furthermore, in the mid-1930s, Meyer Parkoff who was a Wurlitzer distributor in New York moved over to Seeburg.

Model V200

At the 1938 Jukebox Convention in Chicago Seeburg unveiled their new machine – the ‘Symphonola’. Miller had been experimenting in translucent plastics for the casing and had come up with the first light-up jukebox. The plastic panels had low wattage bulbs behind them,lighting them up and making the phonograph “glow”. This design approach was such an instant success that many of the other companies at the convention returned to their new machines and changed the casing. This has led to many of the most popular design of jukebox, including machines such as the Wurlitzer 1015 which is probably now the most recognised jukebox.

The various different models of ‘Symphonola’ were Seeburg’s main output for some years after its release; although they continued to develop new ideas, they were never quite able to keep up with their competitors. In 1939 they introduced the ‘Wall-O-Matix’, which was a wall box serving as a remote from the master phonograph. Using a thick twenty-wire cable (one for each selection) it used radio frequency signals to send the customer’s choice to the central machine. They also devised a system whereby about fifty jukeboxes were networked to a central station. Here female “jockeys” with several turntables would receive a customer’s request, made by speaking through a mouth-piece. This allowed a total of 250 records in addition to the 20 on the phonograph itself. These novel inventions never really caught on, and it seemed that twenty selections was all people really wanted. This attitude was to change after the war.
Like most factories during the Second World War, Seeburg went into the development and production of electronic equipment for the US Armed Forces. Jukeboxes were not in great demand and all the companies suffered. However, the end of the war brought new growth and prosperity. Seeburg was back in business. While the ‘Symphonola’ was still their main machine, Seeburg was working on an entirely new mechanism brought to them by an inventor called Ed Andrews. In 1948 the M100A revolutionised the jukebox market. Post-war growth in America resulted in a trend towards an American love of quantity.Everything was bigger and better. 20 selections was no longer enough,and the M100A was years ahead of its time. The Andrews mechanism allowed the records to be stored and played vertically, allowing a long row of discs – the new jukebox had a selection of one hundred.This was Seeburg’s most successful era. The M100A, or ‘Selectomatic’ as it was known commercially, was way ahead of the competition. Its design also took another step into the future, thereby taking a big risk. Miller’s exterior casing was no longer tubes and curves, instead it featured straight lines and chrome fixings. Another important feature was that the mechanism was on view behind transparent plastic; customers liked to watch the machine choosing and playing their record. Furthermore, it had an extremely well-designed interior, split into sections and allowing easy repairs and replacement of parts. This became important as the record industry began to change. The old 78rpm records were beginning to give way to new developments. By this time Columbia had presented their 33 rpm records which had thinner grooves and so played longer. The following year, 1949, RCA undermined this coup by Columbia and produced their own micro-grooved disc, the 45rpm. These were smaller than the 33 rpms, at 7 inches, and a little faster.

Seeburg had made good provision for this revolution, and soon released the M100B, the ‘Selectomatic’ converted for 45rpm record use. Over the ensuing years improvements and modifications were made to Seeburg’s machines, and they remained the industry leader for sometime. In 1953 they introduced high fidelity reproduction, with phonograph model HF100G, a wide-range, multi-speaker instrument with low distortion. Two years later came the first 200 selection jukebox,which also came with another ground-breaking innovation – the electronic memory unit, which was used to “remember” and then play multiple selections.