This week’s Historical Treasure is Mills Novelty Company’s Automatic Phonograph, a.k.a. a “coin-in-the-slot phonograph” or “nickelodeon,” and is considered to be an early incarnation of the jukebox. This gem was manufactured circa the 1930s. Mills Novelty Company, founded in Chicago in 1890, was one of few companies to manufacture both vending and gambling slot machines. In 1928, the company entered the market for coin-operated radios and multi-selection phonographs, becoming an important competitor in the industry, then changing its name to Mills Industry Incorporated in 1944.

Louis Glass of Pacific Phonograph was one of the innovators who made the jukebox experience possible, inventing the first coin-in-slot-phonograph, in 1879. Glass and partner, William S. Arnold, installed the first machine of its kind at the Palais Royal Saloon in San Francisco in 1889. Their machine featured an Edison Class M Electric Phonograph inside a wooden cabinet, fitted with four listening tubes and a coin mechanism, patented by Glass and Arnold.

Early jukeboxes faced a lack of amplification and zero record selectivity. However, Hobart Niblack’s invention of an automatic record-changing device in 1918 advanced the machine’s functionality, leading to the manufacture of one of the first selective jukeboxes in 1927. Also influencing the jukebox’s technological advancement was the development of an amplifier by Automated Musical Instruments, Inc. in 1927. The entertainment produced by these machines could now be simultaneously enjoyed by rooms full of people, rather than by just a handful of individuals, since reliance on the listening tubes was no longer necessary.

The elegantly-designed model in the Museum collection is selective and offers twelve Victor Record song choices. It includes a power amplifier made by Operadio, a vacuum tube manufacturing company, founded in Chicago in 1922, responsible for the production of the first portable wireless radio. The company moved to Saint Charles, Illinois, in the 1930s, becoming the DuKane Corp in 1951.

One can easily imagine the user’s experience... the plink of the coin-drop… the instantaneous illumination of the electric candles that bookend the “ferris-wheel” record-dispenser inside the wooden cabinet… followed by the switching-on of the wheel, as it slowly rotates the record selection to the turntable before ejecting it into place… the abrupt drop of the stylus into the start groove… the sound of scratchy dissonance… and then… the melancholic lull of Billie Holiday begins to drift about the room, mesmerizing the crowd, as the summer evening breeze flows in through the open windows of a forgotten time.

The Vigo County Historical Museum will open at the new History Center at 929 Wabash Avenue this summer. Volunteer applications are now being accepted. Follow Vigo County Historical Society and Museum on Facebook or join the mailing list online at www.vchsmuseum.org to stay up to date on the progress.