Wurlitzer organ sound for Korg PA

Remembering Rudolph Wurlitzer - the theater organ's inventor

Today, the name Wurlitzer is a synonym for the jukebox, the indispensible source of bar entertainment in the 1950s. But Rudolph Wurlitzer is known for revolutionizing movies with his organs that accompanied silent films.

A portrait of Rudolph Wurlitzer (c) Mary Evans

Toss in a coin, select a song and watch as the record slides over and starts to play: for young people in the 1950s, jukeboxes were a main attraction at any number of diners, bars and ice cream shops.

American GIs brought the music machines produced by the Rudolph Wurlitzer Company after World War II to Germany, where they quickly got popular. Young people who had neither radios nor record players at home could use them to hear their favorite music. Bill Haley and Elvis Presley were the reigning kings of the charts.

In the years 1955 to 1960, the number of jukeboxes in West Germany increased tenfold to approximately 50,000.

Rags to riches

Rudolph Wurlitzer, born on January 31, 1831 as the son of an instrument maker in the Saxon town of Schöneck, came to typify the American dream. Against his father's will, he emigrated to the US in 1853. The 22-year-old initially worked in a grocery store in New Jersey that was located close to a music store.

Wurlitzer marveled at how expensive the instruments were and decided to take a chance. In 1856, Wurlitzer sent his family 700 dollars, asking that they deliver instruments to America for him. Soon his import business was booming. In the same year, the entrepreneurial immigrant founded the Wurlitzer Company, opening up sales branches in all of the big American cities.

a Wurlitzer Musikbox (c) Karl-Josef Hildenbrand dpa/lby +++(c) dpa - Report+++

An original Wurlitzer jukebox

The 'eighth wonder of the world'

In 1880, Wurlitzer started producing his own pianos. But with his keen eye for a deal, he also watched the latest trends in instrument building - particularly the rising popularity of automated musical instruments. He experimented with the newly developed method of coding by means of punched tape - a method that could also be used to "program" musical instruments.

In 1899, he built the first coin-operated piano in the world, the tonophone, a self-playing piano using punched paper rolls that people could set into motion by inserting a coin. The same principle would later apply to jukeboxes.

As he wrote in a company catalogue, "The possibilities of this instrument are simply marvelous. The tone is rich and charming, the expression natural and truthful. On each piano are set ten pieces of music, which can be selected by the prospective purchaser."

Wurlitzer's coin-operated piano was already a sensation in the US by the time it was exhibited at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York, in 1901. There, the precursor to the jukebox was hailed as the "eighth wonder of the world" and awarded a gold medal.

Keyboard of the Mighty Wurlitzer in Berlin (c) Berlin Musical Instrument Museum

Berlin houses a large and still playable Mighty Wurlitzer

One-man orchestra

In Buffalo, Rudolph also got to take in a presentation of the first silent films that were accompanied by live music. Generally a pianist played alongside the film, but for special premieres, an entire orchestra was often commissioned. It marked the birth of a new concept. Rudolph Wurlitzer wanted to put out an organ specially made for movie theaters that could play film music but also serve up the appropriate background noises.

In order to develop his vision of a one-man orchestra, he got in touch with the British organ-maker Robert Hope-Jones. The latter had developed a new method allowing him to make multiple uses of a single organ pipe, meaning with just a few rose of pipes, he was able to generate hundreds of sounds and effects.

Wurlitzer offered Hope-Jones a chance to collaborate on creating an instrument, and by 1911 the first major theater organs had been developed. Dubbed the "Mighty Wurlitzer," they would go on to achieve world renown.

A Mighty Wurlitzer (c) picture-alliance/DPA

Another original model of the Mighty Wurlitzer from 1929

The Mighty Wurlitzer

Rudolph Wurlitzer did not live to experience the new instrument's worldwide success in the 1920s. He died on January 14, 1914, in Cincinnati. His son Farny took over the business and went on to bring the first jukeboxes to the market during the 1930s.

But the elder Wurzlitzer had plenty of other victories to look back on, as he wrote, "The first outstanding organ we built was the one we sold to the Liberty Theatre in Seattle. It had been built especially as a cinema theater. They depended entirely on our organ for music. It was such a tremendous success that for three weeks the Seattle police had to take care of the crowds that stood for three blocks waiting for their turn to get into the Liberty. And the organ deserved most of the credit."

Europe's largest existing and still playable "Mighty Wurlitzer" has over 1,000 pipes, 200 stops and a console finished in part with gold. It's housed today in Berlin's Musical Instrument Museum.

The great-grandfather to the synthesizer is not just mighty in terms of size but also in the countless special effects it can produce, including bird tweeting, rolling thunder, ship calls, fire alarms, car horns and the roaring of a steam engine.