Mechanical Music Through the Ages

A collection of Mechanical Music and Arcade Machines – highlighting examples of the development in mechanical entertainment over time.

Packard Pla-mor “The Manhattan” 1942 – (USA)

For people who think our obsession with coin-op machines can’t lead to anything good, let me tell you the story of Homer E. Capehart whose obsession with jukeboxes led him to become a millionaire and then a United States Senator.

Homer E. Caphart was born in 1897, joined the Holcomb and Hoke Manufacturing Company in the early 1920’s, and quickly became their top salesman selling “ButterKist” popcorn wagons.

In 1927, Capehart came across Thomas W. Small, who invented an automatic record changer that played one side of a stack of records, turned the stack over, and played the other side. Capehart purchased the invention for $500, but when he showed Holcomb and Hoke the invention, they fired him because it competed with the Electramuse Automatic Music Machine that they were selling.

Capehart, therefore, went into business for himself, attracted a few investors, joined with a furniture maker and, formed in February 1928, the Automatic Phonograph Corporation to introduce the Orchestrope, the first phonograph that could play both sides of 78 rpm records. It was an immediate success.

The road to success, however, is not an easy road. During the summer months the heat warped the records and the weight of the stack of 78 rpm records caused the bottom record to crack. Hundreds of Orchestropes were returned by upset customers.

Capehart solved the problem by buying another patent for a mechanism that held each record in trays. He replaced every Orchestrope he sold.

After finding some new investors, Capehart opened a new factory in 1929 in Fort Wayne, Indiana. It employed 300 workers and produced 25 jukeboxes a day. Sales were so good that Capehart started to expand into the home phonograph market. It wasn’t long before Capehart was called the “Steinway” of the phonograph industry.

Then came the depression, and two years later in 1932, Capehart was forced to sell his company.

Beaten, but not defeated, he didn’t give up. When Capehart came across a new invention developed by the Simplex Manufacturing Company, called the Multi-Selector, which allowed a person to push a button to select the record he wanted to listen to. Capehart bought the rights to it. Capehart sold the selector to the Wurlitzer Manufacturing Company for a position in the Company, as general sales manager, and a percentage of the profits.

Jukebox sales soared. Even in the depression people could afford a nickel for a song. Capehart drew on his experience as a sales man and propelled Wurlitizer into a multi-million dollar company. In 1933, when Capehart joined Wurlitzer, it sold only 3000 jukeboxes. In 1936, it sold 44,000 jukeboxes. Needless to say, Capehart became a millionaire.

In 1939 Capehart resigned from Wurlitzer and reopened his Packard Manufacturing Corporation and produced the PLA-MOR wall box which was designed to be wired to remote jukeboxes. Later in the 1940’s, the Packard Manufacturing Company introduced the Packard MANHATTAN. Priced at $1000, it was “the most luxurious highest priced commercial phonograph” made. The Packard Manufacturing Company prospered until 1950 when Seeburg took over the jukebox market with their 100 play machines.

After he resigned from the Wurlitzer Company in 1939, however, Capehart’s interest in jukeboxes diminished. With the millions he made while at Wurlitzer, Capehart bought a farm near his hometown in Indiana and became active in local Republican politics. He became nationally famous when he set up tents on his farm and invited 10,000 Republicans to a political conference.

In 1944, Capehart ran for the U.S. Senate and won, once again using his sales experience, but this time to sell himself. Capehart was a Senator for 18 years until 1962 having a major influence on America’s establishment of NASA. He died in 1979.