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J.P. Seeburg Company – An Extensive History

Chicago, Ill

Justus P. Seeburg, Founder
J.P. Seeburg Corporation

In the following 1938 article, Justus Seeburg discusses some of the events that led up to his establishment of the Seeburg company shortly after the turn of the Century.

"Memories crowd in thick and fast as I look back forty years to the beginning of a long, interest packed association with the music industry. It was the whirling close of the gay Nineties.. the immortal "T.R." and his Rough Riders were the men of the hour.. "Gentleman Jim" Corbett the idol of the ring fans.. the radio and airplane were yet five years in the future, and the owner of a talking machine was the envy of all the neighbors. Music halls had not yet been replaced by motion picture palaces, and swing of the day was barber- shop close harmony over foaming steins. And I, a part of all this scintillating, thrilling transition from the Nineteenth to the Twentieth Century, daily traveled to my new and exciting work at the old Marquette Piano Company.

Little did I dream in those days that soon I was to launch myself into a business that has since grown to the proportions of a nearly major business industry.

I threw myself to work, giving vigorously and unstintingly of my energy and before long I had become superintendent of the Marquette plant. In those time, Marquette Piano enjoyed a nationwide reputation, and it was a matter of personal pride that I help maintain Marquette leadership. Working heart and soul toward that end, and looking for new fields of distribution, I, together with the Marquette technical staff, produced the first coin operated electric player piano. That development in automatic music proved the turning point in my business life, and boosted me directly into the business of operating.

I quickly saw in the commercial promotion of the an outstanding opportunity for active, ambitious men. I tested several of the pianos on locations around Chicago and they proved to be an immediate success. The few pianos soon became a score, and the double that, and before I knew it, my piano operating business became so extensive and required so much of my time that I found it necessary to tender my resignation from my position with the Marquette organization.

I formed the J.P. Seeburg Piano company and established sales offices and display rooms in the Republic Building in Chicago's Loop. My operation grew by leaps and bounds. Location owners became so anxious to receive coin- controlled electric pianos that the problem of the day, contrary to present conditions, was not finding the locations, but selecting those most suitable from the applicants. Not only did I have my choice of locations, but I never allowed more than twenty percent commission, and in many cases, fifteen percent was highly satisfactory.

Many present-day operators will heave a sigh of envy about those "Good old days," but the truth of the matter is that the "Good old days," can be brought back to a great extent if operators and their associations will work together inn setting a percentage limit. In my day, there was no "chiseling" and there need be none today.

My warehouse was in a loft on Clayborn Avenue, near Division Street on the north side of Chicago, and from here the operations were conducted under my supervision. Locations became more and more numerous and soon I was operating Marquette Pianos as fast as the factory could build them. In fact, I was using the entire output of that company. I had a staff of seven motorcycle equipped servicemen, each an expert in mechanical piano maintenance, and our activities were only limited by the number of hours in each day.

I recall particularly one slender young man on a motorcycle, the liveliest member of my crew. He comes to mind more often than the others for he is still with me in the robust hearty person of Fred Kosecki, credit manager for the J.P. Seeburg Corporation. We often relax from our present duties to "remember when" we were continually in action- I getting and promoting locations, my men on their service calls.

Service then was essentially the same as it is now. We early learned that a piano properly serviced was good for years of performance at a profit. We had to learn that lesson, because an electric piano cost as high as $650 retail and I had to pay more than half that sum for each of them, even in the large quantity purchases I regularly made.

The pianos used ten rolls, or selections, and I made it my business to check the locations. I discovered the likes and dislikes of the patrons and, after that was done, my men had orders to service the pianos religiously once each week, if not more often. The music most desired by the patrons was given to them, which helped receipts greatly. Instruments were kept clean and the service calls were made quickly and quietly. I personally kept in touch with as many location owners as I could reach.

Fully forty percent of the popular music of the day was of the folk song type- ballads that were old then and are even now dear to our hearts.

The careful servicing, the equally careful selection of service men and of locations and the constant study of the musical likes of patrons, enabled my instruments to earn as high as $50 and $60 weekly. Many of the locations in which I operated pianos are still doing business today, an indication that I chose my spots well.

As was inevitable, my operating business attracted the attention of men seeking a similar opportunity in other territories throughout the nation, and I automatically began to make plans for the second phase in my career in automatic music.

I realized that there was bound to be a demand for hundreds, yes thousands of coin- operated electric pianos, and that the demand was not far off. Consequently, and with as little delay as possible, I left the field of operation 1902."

--Justus P. Seeburg, 1938 

Justus P. Seeburg, a Swedish mechanical genius, businessman, and later a philanthropist, came to the United States at the age of sixteen in 1887.

In the course of time, he started to work at the Marquette Piano Co. and worked his way to become superintendent of that company. While working as superintendent, he started into the operating business installing electric operated pianos in choice locations of Chicago. Soon his operating business grew so large that he went into business for himself. In 1902, the original J.P. Seeburg Company was established.

He was active in the affairs of the company until he died at age 87 in 1958. After 1958, his son, N. Marshall Seeburg and two grandsons continued to operate the business.

The Seeburg "Orchestrion" was introduced in 1910. This automatic mechanically played piano was equipped with various other instruments including violins, mandolin, flute, snare drum, cymbal, triangle, and other percussive effects added to the basic automatic piano.

In the early 1920's, further Seeburg developments in the mechanical piano field led to the manufacture of player pianos, self contained organs and organ and trap drum combinations that were featured in moving picture theaters of the era.

1927- A coin operated, non-selective phonograph was introduced. Player piano and organ productions ceased. The electrically amplified sound records of the era made possible a more saleable coin phonograph.

1928- Two models of the "Audiophone" were introduced.

This was a coin operated 8 selection unit that utilized 8 individual turntables mounted on a "Ferris- wheel" mechanism and rotated to give the customer his choice of songs.

During the lean years of the thirties, the company concurrently sought to diversify it's activists by working o a number of ideas.

1931-1933- Coin meters for washing machines, refrigerators, etc., were developed. A wide variety of games were also developed such as gold digger, western sweepstakes, pin ball games, etc. A number of these were produced in small limited amounts.

1934-1935- A 10- selection phonograph (Wilcox) was produced. The 10 records were in a vertical spaced stacked position, with the tone- arm coming into the spaces to play the selected record.

1935- brought Seeburg into the big game market when Ray-O-Light (shoot the moving rabbit) was produced.

1935 through 1936- brought the 12 selection phonograph (5 models) A, B, C, D, F, (Freborg). This basic mechanism was used for approximately the next ten years. Sliding trays were used to store the records not in the play position.

1936- a Parking Meter was designed and sold to a company that later had good success in marketing the product.

1936- Seeburg manufactured one of the first vending machines for dispensing cold drinks into paper cups.

1937- The Ice Cream Bar vender was put on the market.

1937- Seeburg entered the electronics field by the acquisition of Corona Radio Corporation, and now produced amplifiers and other electronic units for their coin operated selective phonograph and Ray- O- Light games. This was also a first in the electronic age for Seeburg and a lead to a number of "firsts" in the music field.

1937- also was the first for 20- record selection, coin operated phonographs. This was accomplished by the redesign of the basic mechanism and addition of record tray storage and a new type of selector system.

Early in 1938, all production on pianos was stopped and the facilities were used to produce coin operated phonographs. The high production was necessary due to the new design in cabinets, a Seeburg first, in front and corner lighting, and the use of colored pilasters.

1938- the "Decca" home record player was in production.

1939- The coin phonograph business was growing and prospering, Seeburg introduced in the fall of 1939 with the coin phonograph, the music industry's first phonograph "Wall Box". This was a remote selector unit which put recorded music in public places "at the fingertips of the public."

The wall box, placed in booths. on walls, and on counters, remote from the master phonograph, offered patrons a choice of twenty selections. This pioneer model operated through a multi- wire cable (one connection per selection) or through an ingenious "wireless" signaling system that transmitted a patron's choice from the wall box to the phonograph by radio- frequency signals conducted over power wiring.

Subsequent refinements by Seeburg eventually made possible the now- familiar three- wire cable that transmits many selections, but only uses three wires.

Seeburg's increased specializing in coin operated phonographs had, through his time period, in the company's history, led to the dropping of earlier and non- related manufactures. By 1938, with the exception of the ray- gun target games, automatic phonographs and components made up the main part of the company's operations.

1940- automatic record changers and recorders for home phonographs were added to the company's product line, and Seeburg became a major supplier of components for 38 major manufacturers such as Stromberg- Carlson, and RCA Victor.

1940 was also the year that Seeburg made it's first bottle dispenser that would dispense bottles in six different flavors.

The coming of 1941 and war saw the Seeburg organization wholly converted to the development, engineering, and production of electrical equipment for the U.S. armed forces. This total conversion to war work continued to the end of World War II and brought the company no less than three Army- Navy "E" (for excellence) Awards.

Re-conversion to the normal production at the end of the war saw coin operated phonographs become Seeburg's principal product only for a short while. In 1948, the company placed on the market a remarkable called "The Industrial and Commercial Music System" device to supply background music in offices, stores and factories. It utilized a unique Seeburg development known as the select- o- matic mechanism, which for the first time made a 110 record automatic possible. This remarkable unit stored and played records in a vertical position and, in addition, could handle both 10 and 12 inch 78 rpm records intermixed and play them on both sides.

It was a major breakthrough in automatic, multiple- selection playing of phonograph records, and within only nine months, Seeburg engineers had adapted the select- o- matic mechanism for use in a new Seeburg coin operated phonograph. This was the famous model 100A, the world's first 100 selection unit, and it hit the industry like a bomb upon it's introduction in December 1948.

The model 100A set off an immediate revolution in the music industry, which was suffering an acute depression due to over production and declining profits. It expanded several times the programming possibilities of the coin operated phonograph and opened the doors for greatly increased operating income. In one giant step, it brought prosperity and stability back to the industry. The model 100A, furthermore, was the first of a series of major Seeburg developments that brought industry leadership to Seeburg and soon made Seeburg coin operated phonographs the leader in sales in the field.

The next development was soon to arrive. The 78 rpm disc was at last being superseded in the popular music field by the new micro- groove 45 rpm disc- a record made from high quality, unbreakable vinyl. Committed to the policy of leadership, Seeburg in October of 1950 again startled the music industry by introducing a second model (100B) of the coin operated phonograph that play only 45 rpm records.

Then, one after another, there followed a series of improvements, refinements, and inventive developments that were to be copied by the entire industry.

September 1953- Seeburg introduced a High- Fidelity reproduction to the industry, with phonograph model HF100G, a wide range, multi- speaker instrument with low distortion.

August 1955- Seeburg presented the first 200 selection model. This model also saw the incorporation of two additional Seeburg innovations. One was the "Tormat" electronic memory unit (to remember and play multiple elections) an advanced ferrite memory core device that had no moving parts that replaced the electromagnetic solenoids. The second was a dual pricing system that enabled music operators to obtain 15¢instead of 10¢ for the playing of the new two- tune EP record albums.

November 1956- The Seeburg family sold out to a group headed by Mr. Delbert Coleman called Fort Pitt Industries.

January 1958- Seeburg introduced the "160" phonograph with 160 selections, which has proved to be the ideal capacity.

September 1958- Seeburg presented for the first time in the industry, a stereophonic instrument with "channel 1" and "channel 2" remote speakers, with superb fidelity to play the new "stereo" records being turned out by Tec record manufacturers.

In the spring of the same year, 1958, made it's official entry into the fast growing field of automatic merchandising, more commonly known as vending. Seeburg acquired the manufacturing rights from Eastern Electric of New Bedford, Mass. and produced its first all- electric cigarette vender. This was a forerunner of a full line of venders yet to come.

An improved model was presented in 1959 that introduced an optional "match saver" which only dispensed a match if the customer, pushed a button requesting it. Also introduced was an automatic switch- over, which proved to be a great "sale saver" by delivering a customer's choice of a fast selling brand by automatically switching to a new column when the first was empty.

In 1959, Seeburg acquired the Burt Mills Manufacturing Co. of St, Charles, Ill., and produced a hot coffee vender, (batch brew.) In 1959, Seeburg also acquired a cold drink vender from Lyon Ind. Inc. of N.Y.

In this year as well, the Seeburg idea of automatic recorded music for background use in business and industry, (first presented in 1948) took a revolutionary jump forward with the introduction of a completely new system named the "1000". This was a compact, desk sized unit, wholly automatic, that held 25, 9- inch records, specially manufactured by Seeburg to play at a speed of 16 2/3 rpm. The finely grooved records each were able to hold twenty selections per side, and to be played on both sides, so that the 25 disc stack played 1000 selections.

In presenting this new background music system to business and industry, Seeburg also presented a new concept in "tailored" programming, offering suitable music for each type of location in three record libraries, "Basic" for offices and stores; "Mood" for dining establishments; and "Industrial" for factories.

Seeburg opened the new decade, the Sixties, by producing a redesigned cold drink vender that dispensed crushed ice with each drink; by acquisition of the Choice Vend Company, Hartford, CT.; by assuming direct control over the company's export business, and by leading the entire coin operated phonograph industry into adopting the new 33 1/3 rpm long play discs.

The new cold drink dispenser, which dispensed cold drinks into paper cups was distinguished by the Seeburg developed automatic ice- maker that produced crushed ice so efficiently that it could continuously vend drinks with crushed ice in the busiest locations with the highest ambient temperatures. This innovation brought a basic change to the industry by enabling the vender to increase sales and increase profitability the price of his vended drink.

Acquisition of the Choice Vend Companies a corporate division brought to Seeburg the patents, facilities, and valued brand name of one of the country's leading manufacturers of venders for dispensing beverages in bottles and cans.

The increasing importance of overseas markets in Australia, the United Kingdom, the common market area of the European Economic community, and elsewhere also led Seeburg to assume direct control over foreign sales, and to concentrate that control in a new Seeburg international division.

It was in 1960 also that a second revolution in playing speed of phonograph records reached it's climax. With the fast increasing popularity of the 33 1/3 rpm long- play record, the 45 rpm record seemed destined to follow into history the 78 rpm disc.

While the rest of the industry resisted and held back, Seeburg broke through the indecision not only by introducing automatic mixed play between both 45 and 33 1/3 rpm records, ,but also championing the 7 inch, 33 1/3 record- in stereo- as the one record that would lift the industry to new heights in operator income.

Accordingly another Seeburg invention was launched, the "Artist of the Week" program that for the first time in the industry, the operator was permitted to feature a new artist every week in a best selling stereo album record.

On the Seeburg coin phonograph, the operator could now program the same music that the public was buying for use at home- (music not available on 45 rpm single records).

Having taken the giant step forward in the coin- operated phonograph field, Seeburg almost immediately, in 1961, took another big step forward in vending, and for the first time in history, moved to the front rank in the vending industry. A fully integrated line of advanced modern venders was presented by Seeburg at the National Vending Show in Chicago,

Of great significance was the corporation's acquisition of the Bally Vending Company. Hot- coffee dispensing is a basic business in the industry- the coffee vender is the machine that leads the way to installation of those venders.

The Bally coffee machine was the most accepted machine in the trade, and the Bally Company the leading producer. Acquisition by Seeburg of Bally Company greatly influenced the trade in its acceptance of all Seeburg venders, and automatically made Seeburg the industry's leading producer of coffee machines.

Expanding operations in its International division in 1961, Seeburg established affiliated companies for the marketing of its products in London, Hamburg, Antwerp and Rome. Independent franchised distributors continued in Zurich, Paris, Stockholm, Sydney, Helsinki, Mexico City, Manila, and Caracas. The company also concluded an agreement with American Machine and Foundry Company to manufacture and distribute Seeburg cigarette venders in the Australian Market.

One further corporate acquisition was made in 1961. This was the Qualitone Company of Minneapolis, a highly successful manufacturer of hearing aides and specialized electronic products

As 1962 opened, Seeburg again moved forward in the music field with a timely and imaginative new phonograph feature, Seeburg directional stereo. This with the use of additional and adjustable stereo speakers flanking the top display panel, produced true stereophonic sound, right at the phonograph.

While the company was driving forward in the fields of coin- operated phonographs, background music systems, and automatic merchandizing, it was also continuing its Industrial Division, development of new metal electronics for the U.S. Government and special contract manufacturing such as production of telefax for Western Union.

During 1962 Seeburg brought to completion development of a totally new concept in coin- operated phonograph that was to be a dramatic a breakthrough as the Seeburg model 100A was in 1948. This was the revolutionary LP Console and it presented a completely new departure in design and style, in stereophonic reproduction, and new dimensions in musical programming.

It discarded the traditional design of the coin- operated phonograph and replaced it with a modern console styled by a nationally famous firm of product designers. The LP Console was an instrument to be welcomed in every place where music for the public entertainment was desirable.

But of even greater importance, the LP Console was created to present the type of recorded music with the American public, far more sophisticated than it was in the 1940's, was buying in immense quantities for enjoyment at home. This was the long- playing stereophonic album- music not available otherwise in public locations.

Seeburg, again leading the industry with an exclusive innovation, created an ever expanding library of album- music - much of it recorded in the most advanced true- stereo album recordings of all major record manufacturers.

As a companion to the LP Console, Seeburg at the same time introduced the exclusive Stereo Consolette, an astonishingly compact unit that served as both a remote selector unit, and as a remote dual- speaker stereo unit. This "wall box", originated by Seeburg in 1939, and the remote loudspeaker, were joined in 1962 into a single unit that took booth selection and stereo sound to the farthest part of the largest location.

An additional Seeburg development, a tamperproof income totalizer, automatically totaled up, and registered all coins accepted by the LP Console and by all Stereo Consolettes linked to it. And an electronic, "detective", named the Private Eye, made it easily possible to keep a regular check on the accuracy of the coin totalizer.

The Seeburg LP Console and the Stereo Consolette were introduced at an international sales convention in Chicago in August 1962. In October, a pioneering series of sales meeting in major foreign cities presented these new products to the European market. Continued leadership in the music field was vigorously reasserted. Front-rank position on the expanding vending industry was a matter of solid accomplishment. The company was on the threshold of new advancements for the background music for business and industry.

During the period 1959- 1962, the Seeburg Sales Corporation had doubled its dollar volume sales from $24,000,000 to $50,000,000.

The year 1963 ended as the most successful twelve months in Seeburg's sixty years. In addition to perpetuating its leadership in the coin operated music, vending, and background music industries, the company made a dramatic entry into the home music field.

In the spring of 1963, Seeburg purchased Kinsman Manufacturing Co., Inc., of Laconia, New Hampshire, manufacturer of a quality line of electronic organs.

This move marked the first step in a long range marketing plan to enter the retail music market with new and unique products.

In December of 1963, Seeburg entered into an agreement with Cavalier Corp. whereby Cavalier became a division of Seeburg. The Cavalier facilities were located in Chatanooga, Tennessee, where bottle and can venders were manufactured.

In 1964, Seeburg introduced a new dimension to its stereo phonographs, the LP- 480 Console with a "Big Discotheque Package" that included two supplementary speakers of a size and sound reproductive capacity hitherto used only in recording studios and behind theater screens.

During 1964, Seeburg expansion continued, this time in the package vending field. In January, the company purchased substantially all of the assets of Arthur H. DuGrenier, Inc., of Haverhill, Massachusetts, a manufacturer of mechanical vending equipment for candy, pastry, cigarette, cigar, soap, etc..

In May of 1964, all of the outstanding shares were acquired of Williams Electronic Manufacturing Corp., a manufacturer of coin operated amusement games.

In August 1964, a subsidiary of Seeburg purchased certain operating assets of the United Manufacturing Co., also a manufacturer of coin- operated amusement games.

In the fall of 1965, The Seeburg Corp. acquired Kay Musical Instrument Co. of Elk Grove Village, Illinois. The firm was a leading manufacturer of guitars, basses, cellos, and other fretted instruments. Its products were sold under the Kay name throughout the U.S. and it also made instruments under private labels for several leading chains and mail- order houses.

In 1966 two additional acquisitions were finalized. The Gulbransen Co., of Melrose Park, Illinois was first. The firm had been manufacturing quality keyboard instruments for over sixty years and it's line of pianos and organs were was highly regarded by the industry and consumers alike. The two Gulbransen plants were integrated by moving the Kinsman firm of Laconia, NH, to Melrose Park, Illinois. This resulted in the centralization of keyboard manufacturing.

The other acquisition was of the H.M. White Co., of Cleveland later to be called King Musical Instrument Co.. The firm made clarinets, trumpets, French horns, saxophones, trombones, and sousaphones.

1968- Seeburg Corp. was sold to Commonwealth United where it remained until it was purchased in December of 1972 by Seeburg Industries. In 1984 it was sold to Seeburg Corp., and in 1992 it was sold to Seeburg International, and then in 1998, it was sold to Seeburg Satellite Broadcasting Corp.

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