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.
There follows a full description of the showman's spiel and the Robot's performance.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.
Telepathic Robot - The Scientific Miracle
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’.
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.’
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.
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.’
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.
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.
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.
Brenner Human Analyst