The coin operated machines I loved as a child were the working models like ‘the haunted house’, ‘the drunk in the graveyard’ and ‘the miser’s dream’. The few that I’ve seen since have all been disappointing, but at an impressionable age they seemed completely magical.  Without them, I probably would never have started making coin operated machines myself.   

Today the only working models remaining are in historical arcades such as: Great Yarmouth model village, Marvin’s Detroit arcade and San Fransisco’s Muse Mechanique - (email me if you know of others). Most of the remaining machines are now in private collections. 

 Little has been written about them, the best social history I’ve found is this extract from Nic Costa's book Automatic Pleasures (1988):  Both the best details about the various manufacturers and the best images are in Darren Hesketh's book 'Penny in the slot automata and the working model' 2005 (ISBN 0 7090 7408 5). The images below are reproduced from his book.


The Miser, by John Dennison
The miser has nightmares which include a ghost coming in the door and a devil appearing over his bed. Entirely mechanical, the coin fell on a lever which released the clockwork motor, (which had to be rewound often when the arcade was busy).

A Bolland model I remember as a child. The man and his room were based on a real aristocrat who tried unsuccessfully to sue the company.

The case of this crane is identical to the haunted house above. Bolland started in business after WW2, buying second hand crane machines, when rationing was still in place and prizes for the cranes were hard to obtain. 

Executions were a popular theme, partly because the action was a simple mechanism to make. 

The Burglar is one of my favourites.
The victim leaps out of bed and wiggles his enormous feet. The burglar opens the safe to reveal wads of cash, the wardrobe opens to reveal a huge pair of handcuffs, and finally a policeman appears at the door.

POOR FATHER, by John Dennison
The father constantly rocks the baby in his arms and the crib with his foot. His wife stirs, and then goes back to sleep. This was the first of many machines in the same vein. In the one on the left (maker unknown), set in Henpeck Avenue, the three doors open in turn, to reveal the husband washing clothes sewing and looking after the babies, in all scenes constantly beaten on the head with a rolling pin by his wife.

John Dennison's business was continued by his three daughters, Evelyn, Florence and Alice  I’ve been to see Florence Dennison’s notebook at Leed's Abbey house museum, and I found it fascinating. I didn’t know that John Dennison’s ‘break’ in 1865 was to acquire a concession for his coin operated automata in Blackpool’s aquarium. The construction of Blackpool tower started over the top of the aquarium less than two years after he started. This is how his machines came to be prominently displayed in the Blackpool tower building, which quickly became the heart of the seafront. The success of his machines provided his income for the rest of his life, and all his subsequent machines were built for Blackpool. His daughters continued running his machines and making new ones until 1945, when they finally sold the machines to Blackpool tower. They remained on display until the late 1960s. 

 The similarity with my Under The Pier Show is extraordinary. Like John Dennison, I also happened to be in the right place at the right time. Chris Iredale was rebuilding Southwold pier just after Cabaret Mechanical Theatre had closed its place in Covent Garden, and I was looking for a new home for my coin operated machines. Opportunities to combine building and operating coin operated machines are rare, but its a brilliant mix. The feedback from people enjoying themselves, together with the cash, is just so intoxicating its impossible to stop making new machines and keeping the existing ones working perfectly. Details from Florence Dennison’s diary revealed their passion. It wasn’t just making machines, but regularly rebuilding them, and even composing the cards dispensed by the fortune telling machines. Evelyn Dennison even painted photographic ‘dream men’ for a love machine. She was obviously bolder than me, but I still spend a lot of time ‘improving’ my machines and designing the nonsense they dispense.

 It used to puzzle me why coin operated models have been so popular in the UK, but not in any other country. I now think that the success of Dennison’s arcade in Blackpool tower, which was the centre of England’s biggest seaside resort, is probably the main reason. Its widespread appeal propelled a whole generation of manufacturers to mass produce similar machines to sell to arcades all round the country, and even to the US.  These machines, made by companies like Bolland, are the ones I remember so vividly from my childhood.