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Curious, quaint, beautiful and bizarre: devious mechanical marvels of mahogany, oak, iron and brass occupied side shows, bars, guest houses, arcades and piers in Great Britain from before the turn of the century, right up until the 1970's, when they were ousted by decimalization and more modern contrivances.

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The design of the British amusement machine was steered from the beginning by gaming laws that preceded its invention. Official intolerance of gambling waxed and waned over the years, but slot machines that relied on pure chance had either to hide their true colours or literally hide in the shady corners of fairgrounds and arcades. Manufacturers played safe either by producing pure "amusement only" games, that returned the player's coin at most, or contrived to incorporate a semblance of skill in machines that offered higher rewards.

British merchandiserThe 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).

American bandit
Marshall Fey

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.

English allwin

French horse racerBritish 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.

German gripper

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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