John Gabel, 1872-1955

Selective Coin-Op Phonograph Pioneer

John Gabel (Johannes Göbl) was born on the 26th May 1872 in Metzenseifen (Medzev in Slovakia today) in the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy as son of a nail smith. He did not receive much school education as a child due to illness, but he did attend a course in metalworking encouraged by his father, and in 1886 at age 14 he immigrated to America to stay with his older brother in Cleveland in Ohio. After two years with odd jobs the 16 year old John Gabel was encouraged by friends and family to try to make it on his own in the industrial city of Chicago, and he soon found a good job at the Felt & Tarrant Manufacturing Company making calculating machines. After a few years John Gabel was hired by the newly formed Mills Novelty Company (M.B.M. Cigar Vending Co.) on the corner of West Washington and South Canal Street (before the company moved to South Jefferson Street) producing coin-op vending machines. The Mills Novelty company had some problems with a new line of amusement machines, and John Gabel immediately started working on adjustments and improvements. He was quickly promoted to machine shop foreman. After leaving the Mills company John Gabel was approached by John F. Bower (Bower Machine Co.), who wanted to make a line of slot machines at his facilities. John Gabel then developed a new 6-way floor amusement machine named "Master Mechanic", but he left the company before the new floor machine was introduced early in 1899 (one machine known to exist). In October 1898 John Gabel was co-founder of the Automatic Machine & Tool Company together with the contract cabinetmaker Edward Marius Mikkelsen, an immigrant Dane, who helped financing the firm for part ownership, and the patternmaker Emil Charles Mueller that he knew already from the Bower Machine Company. John Gabel purchased Edward M. Mikkelsen's part of the Automatic Machine & Tool Company about one year later, but Emil C. Mueller stayed with the firm until the 1940s as foreman and treasurer.


During the first years with the new company John Gabel created a whole line of floor amusement machines, counter wheels, and trade stimulators, and by 1900 the firm employed not less than fifty men. It seems John Gabel became a naturalized citizen of the United States around the year 1900, but an original passport application must be found to confirm the correct date of naturalization. In 1905 John Gabel, who by then was not only a mechanical but an acoustic expert, developed a complicated, all-mechanical, coin-operated talking machine playing two stacks of 12 disc-records with automatic needle changer. The machine was filed for patent on the 26th February 1906, and in 1915 John Gabel won a special prize, the Gold Medal, at the Panama Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco for his talking machine originally named "The Automatic Entertainer" by one of his employees. When John Gabel met Julius Wellner from Philadelphia at a trade show in 1904 or 1905 to discuss possible patent infringements, Gabel immediately liked Wellner. They were of like minds and souls, were born in the same region in the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, and spoke the same German dialect. It seems Julius Wellner had some problems with the patented needle changer in his selective phonograph in the workshop. Therefore, no need to spend money on patent infringement cases, and as a result Julius Wellner became the most successful East Coast representative operating and selling John Gabelˈs "Automatic Entertainer" introduced in 1906. The Gabelˈs Entertainer Sales Co. in Chicago, managed by E. S. Garrett from 1917, operated and sold the selective machine in the Midwest and West Coast cities. John Gabel and Julius Wellner remained good friends until Wellner died too young of pneumonia in the autumn 1917. It is interesting, that the Julius Wellner patent for a ˈRecord-Changing Mechanism for Sound-Reproducing Machinesˈ filed in 1912 was mentioned in the patent listing on the first modern-style Gabel phonographs in the early 1930s.


The John Gabel owned Automatic Machine & Tool Co. located first at South Canal and later on the corner of West Lake Street and North Racine Avenue (North Ann Street), produced a long line of coin-operated talking machines from 1906 until the beginning of World War II. The Automatic Machine & Tool Co. officially changed its name to Gabelˈs Entertainer Co. on the 10th March, 1917, and concentrated on production of ˈAutomatic Entertainerˈ and ˈGabel-Olaˈ machines with new facilities on Lincoln and Walnut Streets. During the World War II the production facility was turned over completely to manufacturing for the armed forces, and after that the company continued to make parts and continuous play mechanisms for telephone systems. The last coin-operated, 24-selection phonograph manufactured by the company in 1940 was named "Kuro", an amalgam of the names of John Gabelˈs two sons Kurt and Robert. A new coin-op phonograph model already designed was planned for production early 1947, but the plan was unfortunately shelved by the management (design not patented). In August 1945 the Lion Manufacturing Corp. was granted an exclusive license to manufacture the newest Gabel phonograph mechanism for a "Bally" jukebox, but it seems the Lion and Gabel companies ran into a possible, serious problem.* The problem was the newcomer in the field, the Aireon Manufacturing Corp. in Kansas City, introducing the first Ernest F. Thomson styled "Electronic Phonograph" in February 1946. The production facilities of The John Gabel Manufacturing Company in Chicago were closed at the end of March 1948, and the company was finally dissolved in 1949, when shares and remaining patent rights were purchased by the Rock-Ola Manufacturing Corporation. John Gabel retired from the company in 1936 at age 65 leaving the company management to his sons Kurt and Robert. The true pioneer and mechanical wizard in the automatic phonograph business, John Gabel, lived for many years at the address 253 Linden Avenue in Glencoe. His mémoires entitled "Biography Of A Man, Whose Destiny Was Guided By An Invisible Hand" based on company notes and diary entries, and dictated over fifty years to his secretary Ms. Florence McDonald on a continuing basis, have unfortunately never been published. Ms. Florence McDonald was employed by Gabel in February, 1905, and the story of the life and business of John Gabel has been well documented by Rick Crandall, and can be found on his website.


John Gabel died at age 83 in a rest home in Elgin west of Chicago city on the 23rd December, 1955, and he was interred at the family monument at the Ridgewood Cemetery, Des Plaines, on the 27th December, 1955. His wife Josephina Baretta Gabel died in San Diego, California, on the 24th January, 1940 (born 12th January, 1876). The Gabel family monument and grave markers can be found at the Ridgewood Memorial Park, North Milwaykee Avenue, Des Plaines. Kurt Gabel (1896-1966) was married to Ruth Karen Erie Gabel (1905-1992). Robert Gabel (1899-1965) was married to Myrtle Helen Hedlund Gabel (1900-1924), engaged to Mabel around 1927, and finally married to Lola Linnie Blomberg Gabel (1908-1965). The grave marker of Robert and Lola Gabel can be found at the Memory Gardens Cemetery, East Euclid Avenue, Arlington Heights.


Gert J. Almind



* It seems the commercial automatic phonograph advisory committee to the War Production Board in Washington was very concerned about the home market, and especially about the plan revealed in August 1945 to establish a new major production. The members of the committee were: James E. Broyles (WurliTzer), Carl T. McKelvey (Seeburg), Robert Gabel (Gabel), David C. Rockola (Rock-Ola), Elmer E. Rullman (AMI), and Vernon G. Wahlberg (Mills). Possible reports from a congressional hearing concerning federal loans to the Aireon Mfg. Corp. to secure post-war jobs would be appreciated.