SI Vault
Robert Cantwell
July 04, 1977
Good times, Depression-style. For a penny—a nickel at the most—you could play golf, football, baseball, hockey, and go home feeling like a million dollars
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July 04, 1977

The Fun Machines

Good times, Depression-style. For a penny—a nickel at the most—you could play golf, football, baseball, hockey, and go home feeling like a million dollars

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The most popular exhibit at the Detroit Historical Society these days is a show called Fun Machines: a collection of primitive slot machines, antique pinball games, fortune-telling devices and—the pi�ces de r�sistance—the coin-operated "sports" machines that were once staple attractions in penny arcades across the U.S. On display are automatic horse races, golf games, basketball games and soccer, football, hockey and baseball games similar to those shown on the next four pages, all of them playable by anyone athletic enough to put a coin in a slot and pull a lever.

The machines' appeal might be called nostalgia, except that the enthusiastic youngsters who crowd the museum can hardly be yearning to return to an idealized past, because they never knew these games in their heyday. The great period of coin-activated sports machines was brief—roughly from the mid-'20s to World War II—though the real boom began with the stock market crash in 1929. The Depression, a disaster to most industries, generated an amazing outburst of ingenuity based on the penny or the nickel, producing thousands of machines designed to give a player a chance to win something for his coin. The contrivances reflected much of the flavor of those years. They were inherently and unashamedly cheap, popular, lowbrow. They were ingenious, yet seemed to be almost homemade. No matter how carefully and sturdily the games were fabricated they appeared to have been put together out of old stuff lying around a basement. In the baseball games, the catchers looked like some primitive artist's attempt to sculpt Aztec gods. In the soccer games, the players wore long knitted sweaters—really knitted—to cover the joints that enabled them to kick. The games were a poverty amusement and faded away with prosperity.

In many of these games you got a ball of sugar-coated chewing gum whether you won or lost. Each penny deposited in the innards of the Vest Pocket Basketball Game returned a ball to the player again and again, until he finally scored a basket. The promotional literature for Scientific Golf reads, in part, "The figures wield actual golf sticks and drive a regulation-size golf ball." (A genuine golf ball was often the prize awarded for a hole in one.) The Western Electric Piano Company produced a mechanical piano with a horse race game attached. "The machine is both an instrument and a game," said its proud inventor. "The player selects his favorite [horse] and deposits his coin. As the selection is playing, the horses dash in a realistic manner around the track."

There were two essential requirements for sports amusement machines. One, the action had to be fast. "The average cent lasts about 10 seconds," said an advertisement for Bat-a-Penny. And, two, the action had to be heavy. In K.O. Fighters two players on opposite sides of a glass-enclosed ring used a remote-control grip-handle to move their fighters around—"slashing, blocking, rushing, sidestepping [read the ad].... Suddenly—SOCK ON THE JAW—he's out and he crashes to the floor."

The early models of these contraptions were actually fabricated in basements by craftsmen of whom little is known. One was a man named Montague Redgrave, who in 1871 secured a patent for a mechanical bagatelle game—the ancestor of pinball games, in which the ball is propelled up an inclined plane and encounters obstacles as it rolls down to land in holes with different values. Another inventor was one William Nicolls McManus of New York, who in 1888 patented a mechanical racetrack. Charles Fey, in his Market Street shop in San Francisco, achieved a breakthrough when he combined gambling devices with coin-operated vending machines. He created a prototype of the modern slot machine, as well as fruit-vending contraptions in which an apple or an orange rolled out when a coin was deposited. His business lasted from 1888 until the 1906 earthquake.

The first successful manufacturer of coin-operated gambling machines was Herbert Mills, an Iowan who opened a factory in Chicago in 1897. He produced The Owl—one of the most famous of early slot machines—the Three-for-One and On the Square. Mills also built a coin-operated punching bag that measured the strength of blows landed on it. But his greatest success was the Violino-Virtuoso, a coin-activated piano-and-fiddle duet, which he introduced in 1906 and which sold for either $2,000 or $3,000 depending on the model. You can now buy one for about $6,000, if you can find it.

By the '20s there were so many manufacturers that secrecy became the order of business. New models were brought to conventions and kept in locked rooms, to be shown only to insiders. One of the hits of the industry's 1927 convention was the Chester-Pollard football game. Frank Chester, an electrical engineer, and his brothers Charles and Ernest bought the patent rights to an English soccer game, converted it to American football, built 100 samples and quietly tested it in selected locations for a year. Chester-Pollard next introduced their golf game, the penny model of which sold for $150 and the nickel one for $175. The golf game was a two-man competitive device, and 7,000 of them were sold the first month it was on the market.

"In one year 2,027 hotels accepted our games," said Ernest Chester. They were also placed in clubs, railroad depots and on steamships. In 1929 Chester-Pollard introduced Play the Derby—a match race between Man o'War and Sir Barton, twice around the track for 5�—at the Hotel Statler in Detroit. Next came their International Derby, in which the players spun wheels that moved the horses, but if a wheel was turned too fast, centrifugal governors disengaged a clutch and the horse balked.

A profusion of games began to appear: Hoot-Mon Golf ("With the left handle you face the golfer in whatever you believe to be the proper position for shooting the hole. With the right handle you control his club, raise it above his shoulder, get the feel of it as you would in a regular game..."); Chester-Pollard's Baseball Game; a rival All American Baseball Game in which the pitcher threw the ball at regularly timed intervals, and an automatic umpire signaled balls and strikes.

Chicago was the center of the coin-operated industry, with about 30 manufacturers, and by 1930 there were 250 manufacturers all over the country turning out some 400 different machines. Their output became more and more ingenious. For a nickel, a machine built by Henry Yates of Ohio set off a veritable whirlwind of actions that included "Negro dancers, a pair of prize fighters, different animals doing stunts, Maggie swatting Jiggs with a rolling pin and a full orchestra with a very comical drummer." You could test your strength on machines such as the Braying Jackass ("The more you lift, the louder he brays") and the Tiger Tail Puller ("Pull the tiger's tail and hear him roar"). There was the Singing Bird Gum Vendor: "Two birds sing and go through lifelike movements when a penny is deposited."

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