Monday, October 1, 2012

The Story of Rock-Ola Video Games - Part 1 (Background)


    David Rockola was born in 1897 and spent his youth in a small town in western Canada. At age 14, after his mother died, he dropped out of school and took a job as a bellboy in Saskatoon while taking correspondence courses on gasoline engines. Later he opened a cigar shop in Medicine Hat where he worked so long and hard that he was hospitalized with diphtheria fever and lost his store. He opened another in the St. Louis Hotel in Calgary. One day a pair of Australian salesman dropped in and sold Rockola a "trade stimulator" (a kind of early slot machine that skirted the law by paying out in redeemable tokens or credits instead of cash). Skeptical, Rockola put the machine on the shop's counter where it was soon earning more money than the cigar shop itself. David quickly decided to enter the coin-op business and took a job with the Mills Novelty Company. By age 23, he had earned enough money to move to Chicago, where he began a career in the slot machine industry. At the time, the industry had an unsavory reputation (Mills Novelty, for instance, was rumored to have ties to mobster Frank Costello) and before long Rockola landed himself in a bit of legal hot water.

David Rockola (seated) at the trial. Photo from Originally source: Chicago Examiner from Chicago Crime Commission.

In 1923 he went to work for manufacturer William Kenney as a mechanic. While there he began retrofitting legal slot machines to pay out in cash for Southside slot syndicate kingpin James "High Pockets" O'Brien. After leaving Kenney, Rockola continued his work for O'Brien. In1928, Anton Cermak was elected Mayor of Chicago on a promise to clean up the corrupt administrations of his predecessors. Cermak appointed John Swanson DA and in 1929 Swanson went after the slot machine syndicate with a passion. In June he formed a grand jury. In exchange for immunity, David Rockola agreed to turn state's evidence. During the trial, Rockola abruptly changed his mind and took the fifth (along with Kenney). He was charged with contempt and sentenced to six months in jail. The case against O'Brien (who was conveniently out of the country during the trial) fell apart but Chicago police officer and evidence room custodian Frank Beran was indicted for taking bribes to allow Rockola to take possession of confiscated slot machines. This time Rockola testified and Beran was convicted. Filled with a new confidence, the city decided to try High Pockets one more time. Once again, Rockola agreed to testify. Once again he changed his mind. Once again he was jailed and O'Brien got off scot free. After the trial Rockola began to sever his ties with the slot business and it organized crime associations.

An A.B.T. Target Skill game. Photo from

            In truth he had started the process before the trials began. In 1924 he and partner went into business as operators, acquiring 1,000 units of a popular countertop pistol game called Target Skill[1] from A.B.T. Manufacturing. They were soon operating multiple routes in Missouri and Illinois that included over 5,000 coin-operated weighing machines. In 1926 Rockola decided to start his own company and formed the Rock-ola Scale Company (he added the dash because people always mispronounced his name), which manufactured coin-operated scales starting with Low Boy. David Rockola also designed a curved coin slot to prevent people from cheating machines by inserting a straw into the slot. When pinball hit it big in the 1930s, Rockola designed the games Juggle Ball (1932), World Series (1933), and Jig Saw (1933 - aka World's Fair Jig Saw) With 70,000 units produced, Jig Saw was one of the most popluar games of all time. It was also one of the first themed pinball games. in which the player pieced together a tiny mechanical jigsaw puzzle. Despite the game's success, Rock-Ola almost went bankrupt. When his creditors threatened to close his company down, David Rockola told them they could do that and get only a fraction of what they were owed, or back him and get everything. They backed him.

A Rock-Ola Low Boy scale. Photo from

While scales were Rock-Ola's main business in the early 1930s, David Rockola believed they were just a fad. Music, on the other hand, would always be popular. The introduction of the first amplified jukebox in 1927 made it possible to put the machines in bars and the end of prohibition in 1934 made the possibility a reality. That very year, Rock-Ola purchased the patents of the defunct John Gabel Company and introduced its first jukebox, marking its entry into the business with which it would become most associated. That same year, the company moved into a mammoth 600,000-square-foot former piano factory at 800 North Kedzie Avenue that covered four city blocks. The jukeboxes were an instant success but Rock-Ola continued to manufacture other products including parking meters and furniture.

Close-up of a Rock-Ola M1 Carbine. Photo from

Sidebar - The Rock-Ola M1 Carbine

During the war, manufacturers across the country halted production on their normal products to produce war materials. The coin-op companies, including Rock-Ola, were no exception. In March of 1942 Rock-Ola was contracted to produce 100,000 M1 Carbines and to supply rifle barrels for other manufacturers, primarily Chicago's Quality Hardware Machine Company. With its experience making cabinets Rock-Ola also made the rifle stocks and hand guards as well as a number of other components (others came from other suppliers, like Winchester and General Motors). Before delivering the first batch of rifles Rock-Ola was awarded another contract to produce 152,746 more carbines with a goal of 1,500 per day. Rock-Ola didn't meet its daily goal, but they did deliver 228,500 carbines, though this represented just 3.7% of the total made (the lowest percentage of the major contractors).

            After the war Rock-Ola resumed making jukeboxes and in the early 1960s it became the nation’s leading manufacturer, producing upwards of 25,000 machines a year. When many people think of the classic 1950s juke boxes, it's a Rock-ola juke box that they picture (a model 1428 was at one time on display at the Library of Congress). Some even claim that the term "rock and roll" had its origins in the company's name.

The Rock-Ola 1428

Next time - the vidoe game era.

[1] Some sources give a release date of 1926 for Target Skill.

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