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Mass-Observation, Blackpool amusement machines, 1937

Postby pennymachines » Sun Jan 20, 2019 8:19 pm

Founded in 1937, a collective called Mass-Observation brought some of the techniques of social anthropology and a '30s documentary ethos to studying the minutia of British cultural life.

Their record of the workers of Bolton and their leisure activities in Blackpool were curtailed by the start of the war and the material was not published until 1990:
Worktowners at Blackpool: Mass-Observation and Popular Leisure in the 1930s. Unfortunately, the book doesn't include the fascinating photographs Humphrey Spender took in parallel with the written research, but these are available here: Bolton Worktown: Images of Blackpool

An extract of the chapter germane to our interests is online at Google Books: Chapter 10: Pennies From Heaven & From Earth

Fortune tellers and the way they exploited superstitious belief and behaviour was of particular interest to the observers. Having visited two palmists, both proclaiming to be the real Gypsy Smith, they observed the Telepathic Robot.
Like everything else, the occultist is being replaced by the machine. This would be the civilised development from the gypsy and pyramid to technology and Unilever. One step from the gypsy giving your lucky number and health forecast is ‘Telepathic Robot, the Scientific Miracle’. According to its spieler on Pleasure Beach, it is a
miracle of modern mechanism with a mysterious radio-brain that will describe all manner of your possessions and answer any question that you put to it. It is baffling, bewildering, and uncanny, and it is the topic of argument wherever it goes. How can it know so much about you? By what means can it so actively and quickly tell you the answer to your most perplexing problems? You will find yourself coming back time after time to stand and watch and wonder how it is done, and just when you think you have discovered the secret, it will say something that explodes your theory.
It is built like an enormous weighing machine in Martian-human form. Where the dial of the weighing machine would be, there is a glass front revealing electrical coils and other gadgets inside, and in particular two electric bulbs glowing green with an effect of monster's eyes.
There follows a full description of the showman's spiel and the Robot's performance.

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Telepathic Robot - The Scientific Miracle


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Telepathic Robot - The Scientific Miracle

The writer comments that they were unable to determine how the machine worked. “One of our observers asked the Robot, ‘What am I?’ Reply: ‘A Mass-Observer’”. Then they turned their attention to the coin-operated versions.
Near to the Telepathic Robot is a whole range of prediction machines which occur all over Blackpool, along the piers, in the Tower, Olympia, Winter Gardens, Pleasure Beach, and all along the promenade. They require no human intervention, charge a penny, and have names such as the ‘Green-Ray Television Wonder’. Television has fitted excellently into progressive ideas of spirit and magic, and two observers who have televised find it gives them almost superhuman status among many Northern folk. Other efforts: ‘The Robot King’, ‘The Radio Analyst’, ‘Electrical Crystal Gazer’, ‘Vocal Radialist’, and ‘Professor Renerb’s Master Mind’.

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Bradshaw Green Ray
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Brenner Magic Robot
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Coin Operating Co. Crystal Gazer
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Ahrens Vocal Radialyst
Take the Professor. One of his many and slightly variable machines is in Olympia. Next to it is the stall selling Violet Ray Ozoner, which ensures relief for ‘Catarrh and Asthma as recommended by Sir R. Paget and Prof. Kowarschick’. The Professor's mechanism is housed in a 6 feet by 3-feet by 2-feet box, with a large ‘Silver Crystal’ - i.e. silver-painted globe or ‘witch ball’ - and below two glass globes set side by side, representing the Professor's eyes. ‘Look into my eyes,’ says one notice. More fully another claims:

Professor Renerb’s Master Mind Can Read You Like An Open Book. My delicate mechanism responds to every thought. And my tape machine types what I observe about you. For your benefit inventive brains are built into this machine with deep knowledge accumulated by years of study. Insert penny. Hold the divining rod and look into my eyes. My tape machine will type what the mechanical master mind thinks about you.

When the penny is inserted a yellowish orb rotates, flickering inside each eye. Between the eyes there is a window into the machine, revealing a sort of circular metal toasting grid, with a link of thin chain lying on it (the brain?).

Observer was unscientifically laughing at this performance, when he received a long strip of thin paper with typewritten words on, starting with an admonition from the eyes, ‘Don’t look so serious.’ But another strip from ‘The Robot King’ gave a professional hint: ‘Muster your powers of observation especially between Thursdays and Sundays.’ Renerb is always exceptionally progressive, and his latest development in 1938 was in the form of a NERVOGRAPH, on a telegram slip: ‘NEXT TIME START IMMEDIATELY BETWEEN THE LINES - PLEASING TEMPERAMENT - JOLLY GOOD SORT - USUALLY GO STRAIGHT FOR WHAT YOU WANT - WAVE OR ZIG-ZAG ALL SAME TO YOU - KEEP THAT HAPPY FEELING - OTHERS ENJOY COMPANY - ESPECIALLY ONE - NINE TIMES OUT OF TEN RIGHT - SEE AGAIN SOON - CHEERIO - PROF. RENERB.’

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Brenner Nervograph
The ‘crystal’ to take the gaze is the central and most conspicuous part of these machines. Telepathy, robot man, and television's curved ‘viewing-screen’ are mechanisms for bringing the remote, the invisible, and almost incredible right into our Worktown lives. When you are invited not only to look into the crystal but to put your hands on it, you are playing the seer a bit yourself. One of the newest and commonest machines is ‘Scientific Automatic Palmistry’. For a printed reading, you place your hand on a small square plate covered with little metal studs. On insertion of coin these tremble up and down in erotic ways, tickling and stimulating your palm. Then out comes a yellow card with a design of a palm on it, and your character. The oldest ideas of prediction have persisted in these modern developments.

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Ahrens Scientific Automatic Palmistry

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Ahrens Scientific Automatic Palmistry
One observer collected forty-three different machines’ character or palm readings on the same day. He was thus able to score his lucky day on every day of the week and every date of the month. In the representation of his character, he found little with which he could disagree. Every phrase can refer equally to people of any age and either sex. The machine readings are vaguer and less elaborate than those given personally. But in terms of quantity, you get about six times better value for a penny inserted into a machine as per penny of your half-crown for the medium. None of these machines ever tells you anything about your future, except in the vaguest terms or as regards length of life. In fact, the penny card is no more than a statement of your character. It tells you what you are like and gives encouraging advice, sometimes tempered with a little sternness such as:
To see things entirely different from the rest of humanity leads to misunderstandings, and you should try to be more generous and less impatient in dealing with others.’ But the card immediately grows more kindly and encouraging: ‘Success may be attained by you through some active business enterprises or management. Do not expect to pass through life without a mixture of good and evil.

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Both the machines and occultists offer only personal advice. There is no social aspect of prediction. And the advice is directed towards making the individual feel good or better about things as they are; any change must come from within oneself, and that is already predetermined and predictable. There are certain modifications possible through the exercise of free will, but in general the date on which you are born and the position of the planets and stars at that time are the crucial factors. This is the essential and fundamental assumption of all such astrology and prediction. These cards, like psychoanalysis, to which, in a mass-produced way, they approximate, assume that the only changes needed are those within the individual.


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Hand Impressionist & Bran Tub

From these machines the Worktowners read about their personalities, clearly themselves because they put the penny in the machine and made it work. Those things which are true about them, and which they admit to themselves as true, will not be news to them. Those things which are, in their opinion, untrue cannot be easily ignored and may well bring from the back of their minds some new, if small, self-understanding.

In one sense, the Worktowners, who have none of these machines in their own town, are paying to get the machine’s opinion of themselves. In this one week, during which they are free from work, they are out of their familiar environment; they are not associating with all the people they would ordinarily meet each day at work, in the tram, in the backstreet and the corner-pub. In their social contacts they are thus bound to behave ‘abnormally’, and in such circumstances the opinion of others grows especially important.

In another sense, during this week the normal trajectory of working life is suspended: there is no payday and no washing day. This accentuates the moment and the future, which for this week is not turning on the endless chain of industry. For unemployed Worktowners and those who feel that their jobs are insecure (the latter appear to be continually increasing), the future offers little sign of improvement; thus, it is easy to grasp at any straw or star.

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Brenner Radio Analyst (video)

Clearly people do not regard these machines simply as a joke. Mediums and clairvoyants charge half-a-crown. Even at a penny with the machines, there isn't much of a joke about it. There is no field for skill, competition, seeing something, laughter, or prize winning. It is the experience of observers that the great majority of people who patronise the occult believe in it. Often they profess scepticism or mild disbelief, but the words that they have heard or read about themselves nevertheless have their effect. Hundreds of observations on people using the ‘Hand-Impressionist’ showed everyone placing his hand correctly on the studs. Observers from the South tended rather self-consciously to fool about with these; sometimes one would get several readings from the same instrument, sitting on the studs with his behind. But for the Worktowner the machine still did its work, reading the Mount of Jupiter, Line of Love, and Line of Life.

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Brenner Human Analyst

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Re: Mass-Observation, Blackpool amusement machines, 1937

Postby treefrog » Mon Jan 21, 2019 1:25 am

Very interesting Mr PM.....I had always wondered were people more gullible or perhaps superstitious years ago with all these machines and fortune tellers, certainly I remember many people being the latter 30 years ago believing things like horoscopes and clairvoyants......question is what has replaced this today or are we just all more enlightened........I guess perhaps social media :lol:

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Re: Mass-Observation, Blackpool amusement machines, 1937

Postby john t peterson » Mon Jan 21, 2019 3:27 am

Speaking only for your American cousins, I can safely say that we are no more intelligent than our forefathers when it comes to con men and grifters. As proof, I need only offer the election of our current President, Mr. Donald J. Trump.

J Peterson
Dismayed but not defeated in America

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Re: Mass-Observation, Blackpool amusement machines, 1937

Postby pennymachines » Mon Jan 21, 2019 7:17 pm

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Laughing mannequin


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Laughing mannequin


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Laughing mannequin


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Laughing mannequin

Turning to the slot machines...
An unusually candid comment from the only one of 220 letters in the ‘Holiday Dream’ survey (who mentioned enjoying the slot-machines): ‘A day amongst the hundreds of automatic machines, watching the faces of those who swell the machines with pennies. It is an education in itself.’ We made a detailed census of slot-machines along the promenade and other amusement centres... In this wealth of slottery, people can play games more simple and immediate and even more profitable than those available for the rest of the year in Worktown. And they do play.

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Exterior arcade

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Close up exterior arcade
Commonest of all slot machines is the ‘Football Game’; the highest concentration of these is on the piers, and most of the football machines are visibly aged. Less common are ‘Hockey’, ‘Polo’, and ‘Golf’. In all these games, either two players compete or (rarely) the player matches his own skill against a standard set by the machine. He cannot win more than he puts in.

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Ahrens Football and Golf
But when you start playing with human effigies, always male, juvenile or simian, you may hope for some more material profit. In ‘Play the Red’ you flick a ball by a lever identical to that in the football game into 1 of 7 cups. If you get 5 reds, you get your penny back and another free turn; in some cases, it is possible to win more money than you put in. This is the only machine of its sort in Blackpool, and on the Pleasure Beach there is an arcade largely filled with them. Similar in conception is the ‘Prize Wheel’ and the ‘Spiral Machines’ in which you whisk around 5 balls for a penny, aiming for numbered holes, 0, 20, 30, 50, to win 5 cigarettes for over a hundred points, 10 cigarettes for over 130.

The spiral idea is developed in ‘Skee Ball’, where long low machines slope upwards away from the player, with concentric rings of 50, 100, 150 at the end. On the Pleasure Beach, a long arcade is filled with ranks of Skee Ball tracks, 3d. to play; an illuminated indicator shows your score, which must be at least 260 for a woman to win, more for a man.

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Robots arcade

The active socialisation of these and all ball games is attained in ‘To-Win’, where a long row of players sits each side of a system of pigeon holes laid flat; from a dais, a man directs the play through a microphone, telling everyone when to throw their next ball. All throw each ball simultaneously, and the first who gets a row of pigeon holes filled with balls in a straight line is announced a winner. Two turns cost threepence, and the first prize is generally a box of chocolates. ‘To-Win' is generally working at full blast all evening, with people waiting to take the places of those who have finished; some play for an hour at a time. The microphone patter runs on: ‘Come and try your hand at a real sporting game. . . . It’s not a race. You all have a chance to win. You're not competing against each other. You’re competing against luck, and luck's on your side. Come on. Come on. Show your girls what you can do.

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Side stall clowns game

This patter contains all the elements fundamental to these slot-machines and ballgames. Although, in fact, you are competing against one another in ‘To-Win’, in feeling, you are competing against luck. But you must show your success, if any, to some other human being.

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Shop display automaton

Probably all these amusements originated from bagatelle (or billiards), which is now scarce in Blackpool, but appears as a slot-machine under the names of ‘Kings’, ‘Roly-Poly’, ‘Sure-Shot’, and the ‘Big Game-Hunter’. The slot-machine tendency is continually to elaborate and to introduce fortuitous factors. But invariably the higher the number, the better the score.

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ABT Big Game-Hunter
The idea of aiming at the highest number or centre in a circular pattern is equally basic in another important group of amusements and slot-machines, the shooting and shying type. In 'Pussy' you aim with a fixed pistol at five white grinning cats with red tongues hanging out on a painted brick wall, with a backcloth of houses and chimney stacks. Five lead bullets for one penny and no prizes.

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British American Novelty Co. Pussy Shooter
Crowds gather around the games where you throw a ball at a target. There are no coconut shies in Blackpool and no skittles; the objectives are more closely associated to the release of holidays. Thus at ‘Crazy Kitchen’ you throw to smash crockery; with ‘Belisha Beacons’ you throw at the middle of traffic signs. Or you kick a football at the glass windows of a house; or you shoot with rifles at beer bottles suspended on strings, against a background of luxuriant palms and South Sea islands. At the Belisha Beacons, the barkers cry: ‘Come on, come on. Any prize you like. All for threepence. Have a whack at one. You must have wanted to do it. Here's your chance. Have a bang at the ruddy things.


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One armed bandits


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One armed bandits


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One armed bandits


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Playing the Skill Addas


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Playing the Skill Addas

Observers continually noticed the epidemics of interest and disinterest in these shies; sometimes they made control experiments. For perhaps an hour no one would play. Then one man would start, and in a few moments a section of the constantly flowing tide of people would gather, congest the passageway, and within a minute there would be a dense crowd. Others would start playing, and the place would become a temporary centre of activity.

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Playing merchandiser


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Playing merchandiser


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Playing merchandiser

In the slot-machines the figures to be struck are males; but in the prizes, which are nearly always given by men to women, the dolls are female, and the animals are domestic or petsy. The dolls are dressed as Miss Muffet, Dutch Girl, Beach Girl, and Columbine. Everyone wears trousers, and indeed the animal prizes, too, are equally unsexable. In 1939, with the Pandas at the Zoo getting newspaper headlines and photographs, at Black-pool large stuffed Pandas appeared as top prizes.

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Rotary Merchandiser

(Into these slots, holiday-makers pour millions of pennies.) One manager told us his machines cost £200; in three years it would be worth £30. ‘But it's popular, and I can afford to spend 40 per cent of the takings on swag.’ ‘Swag’ includes scent bottles, small tape measures, powder puffs, packets of cigarettes, large black cats (these are often the most difficult things to win and much the most played for), packets of sweets, packets of five cigarettes, ashtrays, penknives and shellac cigarette cases. (Apparently Worktowners believe that they get their money's worth.)

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Telescope view of famous 'Girl Pat' ship for a penny


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Telescope view of famous 'Girl Pat' ship for a penny


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Automatic Photo, Weight & Date

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Re: Mass-Observation, Blackpool amusement machines, 1937

Postby pennymachines » Sat Feb 09, 2019 7:55 pm

treefrog wrote:
Mon Jan 21, 2019 1:25 am
I had always wondered were people more gullible or perhaps superstitious years ago with all these machines and fortune tellers, certainly I remember many people being the latter 30 years ago believing things like horoscopes and clairvoyants......question is what has replaced this today or are we just all more enlightened........


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Re: Mass-Observation, Blackpool amusement machines, 1937

Postby coppinpr » Sun Feb 10, 2019 12:14 pm

I'm sure I can answer your question BP, cross my palm with silver and I'll look into my crystal ball, but remember, "all is not as it seems". !YAWNCAT!


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