Obituary: David Rockola

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The Independent Online
David C. Rockola, industrialist, born Virden Manitoba 1897, died Chicago 26 January 1993.

ALTHOUGH David Rockola wasn't the first manufacturer of the juke-box, his name captures perfectly the thumping beat of music on a coin machine.

Rockola started the Rock-Ola Mfg Company in 1926 to build weighing-machines. From the age of 14, when he started work, he was gripped by a desire to travel and to find a worthwhile profession. He made money in oil shares, was a taxi-driver, and later learnt engineering on the oilfields of Mexico and Argentina.

His first glimpse of a coin-machine was in Chicago in 1919 while running a cigar store. Two Australians offered him a 'trade stimulator', an early type of fruit-machine offering prizes of trade checks to be spent in the store. Within weeks this was out-earning the cigar business.

During prohibition, Rockola claimed he operated machines 'for the boys', but later he was reluctant to elaborate on this colourful period of his life. At one time he was in charge of 5,000 weighing-machines, which from 1926 he started to manufacture. He later added pin-ball machines (1933) and in 1935 produced his first juke-box.

Others had come before him, Seeburg in 1926, and Capehart (later with Wurlitzer) from 1928, but Rockola competed by using simple reliable engineering, together with a keen sense of contemporary design. Competition beween the big-four juke-box giants was intense during the Thirties but, in spite of a million-dollar patent wrangle, Rockola remained on friendly terms with the chairman of Wurlitzer.

Rockola was always proud of his work. A model '1428' juke- box is displayed in the Library of Congress as an example of Americana. And it gave him much pleasure to know his 'Tempo II' machine was featured on the television show Juke-Box Jury.

By the late Sixties, greater access to music via radio and tapes, together with the demise of the 45rpm disc, led to the decline of the juke-box. For the past 30 years the Rock-Ola company has successfully concentrated on manufacturing vending machines.

When interviewed five years ago, David Rockola admitted he was fortunate to have found satisfaction in life and, he added, he must have done something good for the public because God had allowed him to live so long.

(Photograph omitted)