(an extract from his book, Automatic Pleasures, republished in 2013 and now available from Amazon)

lthough automatons in one form or another were to be made in almost every century since the days of classical antiquity, the 18th century was to prove the point at which the art of the automaton maker reached fruition. This century was to witness many important pioneers of the automat: Henri de Vaucanson 1709-82); Piere Jaquet-Droz (1721-90) and his son Henri Louis (1752-91); the Maillardet brothers, Jaques Rudolph (1743-1828), Henri (1745-cl826), and Jean David (1748-1800). It was witness not only to the manufacture of their exquisite machines, but also to the establishment of exhibitions designed to exploit their money making potential. By the late 1700s (although almost all the leading figures of this period were either of Swiss or French extraction) London had become the centre for their marketing and exploitation.

From 1772 onwards, with the founding of Coxes Museum by James Cox, exhibitions or shows comprising wholly or in part of automata became a regular feature of London life, predating the automatic amusement arcade of the late Victorian era by more than a century — the crucial difference being that the proprietor or an attendant was required to take the public around the exhibition on a guided tour. As the new century progressed, such exhibitions grew not only in size but also in number; that of Signor Gagliardi (shown in 1836-7) consisted of approximately 200 different automatons.

By the 1860s these exhibitions were to be found not only in the major cities, but also from time to time, as part of a travelling fair. One such exhibition was described by a contemporary eye-witness as consisting . . .

. . . entirely of machines that (the showman) had made himself with the help of an apprentice, and sometimes with the employment of a workman. The style of work would not be called high class engineering but there was a certain merit in every machine that it was a good working model. Besides two steam engines of different types there was a locomotive that carried a train round the show; a Jacquard loom, which wove silk ribbon with a small flower pattern; a diving bell in which two dressed dolls were seated, which came out of a tube of water after immersion quite dry, which was very incomprehensible to the country folk; the model of a steam-boat, which worked so far as to turn the paddles round under a sheet of glass which represented the surface of the water; an automatic doll which danced and said ma! ma!; an electrical machine which gave the audience shocks, and some other machines and mechanical devices.


We can see in such shows the embryonic form of the latter day amusement arcade.

In May 1875 the Leeds Times published the following report, relating to a current exhibition:

Not a little interest is excited in this department by the many working models that are shown. For 1d dropped into a crevice like that of a tramway fare box, you may have soldiers on duty, and a host of other novelties. One of the men who shines here most is John Dennison, 26 Salop Street, Bank, Leeds. Mr. Dennison exhibits the model of a ship which is very beautifully executed, and which as the work of a man living in an inland town, reflects very great credit upon him.

Although John Dennison was not the first to fully automate a working model by means of a coin entry mechanism (he is predated in this respect by one or two other known makers), and he was certainly by no means the only maker of automatic machines in the late 1870s and early 1880s, he was nevertheless an extremely important figure in the history of the automatics genre, for he was essentially the earliest recorded person to make a living by means of the manufacture and operation of coin freed novelties, and was to remain actively involved in their exploitation and production from the mid 1870s until his death in 1924. From then the business he had founded was carried on by his daughters until the outbreak of World WarTwo.

However, for all his pioneering spirit he failed to fully capitalise upon the enormous money earning potential of this new genre. This was to be left to men of much wider vision, such as Percival Everitt or Herbert Stephen Mills. Each of Dennison's machines (he concentrated solely on working models and fortune tellers) was hand built, and essentially a one off. None were ever sold until the daughters sold out the entire enterprise to the Blackpool Tower Company in 1944. Somewhere in the region of 30 Dennison machines are known to survive, covering a wide range of subjects, although unfortunately for us, the daughters embarked upon a policy in the late 1920s of revamping or rebuilding (and in some instances of even scrapping) them. Whilst this must have enhanced the family's revenue in the 1930s, the process effectively destroyed many of their father's creations; clockwork was substituted by electricity, original figures and subjects done away with, and new ones substituted. Whilst they managed to create some of the finest models of the 1930s they at the same time consigned to oblivion some of the most historic machines in the automatics genre. Only a very precious handful have escaped the net, surviving almost intact, complete with original clockwork motors, figures and subject matter.

John Dennison's last surviving daughter, Florence, bequeathed a notebook to the Leeds Museum containing a photographic record of the revamping work they did, and listing the models made by their father. It was a wonderful, and in the annals of automatics history a rare gesture, where so much of value has been discarded or destroyed over the years.  

However, in spite of John Dennison's relative importance to the history of the fledgling automatics industry, he was to prove, as the 1880s and 90s came and went, just one of literally dozens of makers of coin operated working models. As early as 1884 they could be bought over the counter at at least one of the leading London establishments specialising in mechanical music and automata; witness a Silber and Fleming catalogue of that year which features a coin operated mechanical Sleeping Beauty complete with musical accompaniment. Indeed, a number of the early manufacturers of coin freed devices during this period would make up models to special order. Few, if any, were to be produced in any quantity since almost all were made up as one offs and the subject range covered over the years was to be exceedingly diverse. Some of the prime users of working models during the last quarter of the 19th century were the various rail and steamship companies who saw in them a convenient means of advertising their wares. Witness this reminiscence from a 1935 article in the World's Fair:


It is of interest that railways and coin slots have been closely allied over a very long period — most readers of more than 40 will recall when they implored their parents to drop a penny in the slot machine, which contained an exact replica of George Stephenson's Rocket. The earliest type I remember was mounted in a large glass case. Movements consisted chiefly of engine wheels revolving for a few moments and the illuminating of the case from the interior. Next, several of the big steamship companies saw the possibility of the coin slot on railway stations (not perhaps as a commercial proposition but as propaganda) with the result that at one time we saw a regular boom in "Ship Models" built to scale and mounted in large glass cases. Here again the movements and mechanical operations were of a simple nature usually comprising a slight rocking of the ship itself, and the lighting up of the vessel . . .

In spite of the fact that automata in general were universally popular throughout the latter half of the 19th century, and were to be found on sale as rich people's toys in all the major western cities, they were only ever to be truly adopted as a legitimate branch of the automatics industry in Britain. Here, they were to be manufactured as set piece scenes which had no other function than to entertain or amuse the user in return for his coin, and as such were to remain a mainstay of the amusement arcade business up until fairly recent times.

Because the manufacture of such machines was undertaken by relatively small concerns which concentrated upon variety as opposed to quantity, their documentary history has been poorly recorded. Since, they rarely if ever incorporated anything fundamentally new, almost nothing exists in the patents documents concerning them. In most instances they would have been made for specific undertakings and were therefore little advertised. Many would be made up to suit the client's or the manufacturer's own requirements (in which case he would also act as operator), and when their novelty had worn out (as in the case of the Dennison’s machines) would have been discarded or revamped to portray new scenes or images. As a consequence, even the names of the makers of some of these machines have not survived the years, let alone a great many of their products. Of the names that we do know, the most notable were, apart from John Dennison: Nelson and Leonard Lee; Vincent Canova and Billy Thompson; Charles Ahrens; Frederick and Arthur Bolland; and Markie Kraft (both Bolland and Kraft were still making models as recently as the early 1960s). In particular, the machines made by Ahrens, Bolland, and Kraft came the closest to what may now be termed production pieces, in that they each marketed a fairly limited range of subjects, but manufactured relatively large numbers of each subject, their products being as a consequence well advertised.

Although, as we have already noted, working scale models of such things as trains, ships or pieces of machinery were marketed early on, they were easily surpassed in popularity by working models of a more entertaining nature which purported to depict scenes of daily life, either comic (such as the poor harassed father minding the screaming brats whilst mother lies in bed fast asleep) or tragic (such as the last moments of a dying child). Others had moral undertones, relating in the main to the evils of drink, or the inevitable brutal end of a life of crime; execution scenes were particularly popular, so too were scenes of a more macabre nature featuring ghosts and ghoulies and things that go whirr and clank for the insertion of a penny.

All in all, through the medium of these machines we are witness to the nightmarish world of our childhood dreams when all the toys come to life and re-enact the larger drama of our waking hours. What better way to conclude this brief survey of working models than this extract from a Punch' article of 1891 relating to machines on show at the Royal Naval Exhibition:

Before a Model Representing an Execution

A Daughter:                        'But why won't you put a penny in this one Father?'

The Father (firmly): 'Because I don't approve of Capital Punishment, my dear'.

Daughter:                        'Oh please father, please!'

Father:                        'Well, let me see — yes, I can lend you one'. (He does,

the penny is put in — nothing happens) 'Out of order, I suppose — scandalous! and nobody to speak to about it — most discreditable! Stop — what's this?' (A sort of woolly beat is audible inside the prison) That's the bell tolling — it's all right it's working!' (It works)

A Spectator;                        'Very well done that was — but they 'urried it over