John Gabel, 1872-1955

John Gabel was born in 1872 in Metzenseifen (Medzev in Slovakia today) in the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy as son of a nailsmith. 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 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 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 (the Bower Machine Company), 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 and Tool Company together with the contract cabinetmaker Edward Mikkelsen, an immigrant Dane, who helped financing the firm for part ownership, and the patternmaker Emil C. Mueller that he knew already from the Bower Machine Company. John Gabel purchased Edward Mikkelsen's part of the Automatic Machine and 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 birth date and 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.

 

The John Gabel owned company, 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. During the war 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 Gabel’s 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). The production facilities of The John Gabel Manufacturing Company 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 the years to his secretary Ms. Florence McDonald on a continuing basis, have unfortunately never been published.

John Gabel died at age 83 in a rest home in Elgin a little west of Chicago city on the 23rd December 1955, and he was buried at the Ridgewood Cemetary, Des Plaines, on the 27th December 1955. His wife Josephina Baretta Gabel died in San Diego, California, on the 24th January 1940 (born 1876).

Gert J. Almind

The Gabel family monument is still to be found at the Ridgewood Cemetary, North Milwaykee Avenue, Des Plaines. Information of any kind related to the life of John Gabel is of course much appreciated. Kurt Gabel (1896-1966) was married to Ruth K. (1905-1992). Robert Gabel (1899-1965) was married to Lola L. (1908-1965). Unfortunately, John and Josephina Gabel's daughter Myrtle H. Gabel died young (1900-1924).