A SHORT HISTORY OF AMUSEMENT
By Tim Hunkin
Surprisingly little has been written about the
history of amusement arcades. There are guides for collectors of antique
slot machines but only one social history (Nic Costa's Automatic
Pleasures). This, despite arcades' far flung success –
every city in the world has them – and even every small town in Europe and the US.
The history of arcades is inextricably linked to
their most profitable and most notorious machine – the fruit machine or
‘one-armed bandit’ as it was named by the disapproving. Accused of
promoting gambling and reducing vulnerable people to debt, the fruit
machine has mired the history of arcades in controversy. Every country in
the world has banned them at one point or another – and now though the
machines are rarely still banned, they continue to be regulated in great
The domination of the fruit machine has hidden
the other aspects of the amusement arcades’ history. There has always
been a spectrum of machines from high stake gambling at one end, through
low stake gambling and games of skill, to machines that are purely
designed to delight and entertain at the other extreme.
In the early 20th
century arcades were at the forefront of the movies. ‘What the butler
saw’ or mutoscope machines were many people’s first experience of
‘moving pictures’. It was the craze for these machines that started
the first arcades – previously lone machines had just been placed in
shops and bars.
(The mutoscope works like a flicker book. Each frame of the movie is
printed on a separate postcard.) Turning the handle rotates the drum
and flicks the cards past the eyepiece.
In the 1930s
the ingenious electromechanical mechanisms and electric lights of pinball
machines were highly advanced for their time. High scores are usually
rewarded by extra playing time.
In the 1970s, arcades were
again at the cutting edge of technology with the first computer games –
like pong (tennis) and most famously Space Invaders.
does not attempt to be comprehensive, it just follows various avenues that
particularly interest me.
Arcade in Berlin 1905
'Discount bicycle wheel' counter top game
(far left) in a US grocery store 1890s
German arcades 1920s