result was paradoxical. A machine, almost by definition, does productive
work in a predictable fashion. But here was a device, built not for work
but play that put out less than was put into it, and did so unpredictably.
Randomness lay at the heart of its mechanism, animating it with the mystery
and magic of chance. It was a many-faced master of deception, promising
riches to its owner and players alike (although minting coins was beyond
its scope) and posing as a game of skill (which the most skilful player
could not defeat).
Although Britain pioneered the development of coin-operated
machines (1857 saw the first patent application, by Simeon Denham, for
a stamp vendor), liberal attitudes to gambling (at least in some States)
gave America an early lead. This culminated in the invention, around
1905, by Chicago engineer Charles Fey, of the one armed bandit. This
hugely successful game became the staple of the American industry and
remains with us today. In Britain, the amusement machine predominated,
in particular the allwin, a kind of upright bagatelle with prizes. The
heady allure of gambling was substituted by tests of skill, which offered
greater entertainment value to the player. A further divergence of form
resulted from a difference of industrial scale. American manufacturers
were tooled up for a mass market and employed teams of specialists at
every stage of production. The gifted enthusiast with a small band of
machinists in a workshop may not be an unfair characterization of the
comparable British effort. Here we are talking about production runs
in the hundreds, versus the tens of thousands that rolled out of some
of the major American factories. For this reason, some early British
designs have not survived, and many that have are rare.
British manufacturers understandably fought shy of the proscribed bandits, but
operators were often prepared to risk a run in with the law for the
lucrative rewards that they could bring. Consequently, Britain enjoyed
the best of all worlds with interesting home grown skill games and sophisticated
American gambling machines standing next to innovative, well engineered
German and ornately elegant French products.
Their attraction is broad. Diverse in form and theme; a whole social milieu is captured in lively period
images and pop-art graphics, giving both historic and aesthetic
appeal. For those who once pitted their wits and meager funds against
them, to own such a machine goes beyond nostalgia. There is a sense
of having captured the enemy. For the collector, they may be an expensive
affliction; to the restorer they offer the satisfaction of returning
a distressed example to its former magnificence; to the engineer (in
all of us) there is the fascination of their mechanisms, but, above
all, they continue to engage players of all ages with challenging games
of skill and numerous other amusing diversions.
Published material is almost as hard to find as the
people who once made, sold, and operated the old machines, but there
are collectors with interesting papers such as old manufacturers' catalogues
gathering dust on shelves, and many who remember the old arcades.
Let's share these resources so everyone can enjoy them. If you have
something to contribute, or simply spot an error, please put it in the Postbox
or email PennyMachines.co.uk.
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