Nic Costa’s classic Automatic Pleasures: The History of the Coin Op Machine is once again in print and as relevant as ever, considering the resurgence of pinball in bars and the popularity of a new Cupcake ATM on Lexington Avenue that had a line of people 12 to 15 deep on opening day. There’s also the nearly 10,000 slot machines at New York’s Aqueduct and Yonkers racetracks, a harbinger of many more to come with the legalization of casinos in New York State.
Gambling machines, the one armed bandit, penny arcades, fortunetelling machines, strength testers, shooting games, viewers, and vending and service machines are among the automatic entertainments covered in the book, which is illustrated with both black & white and color photos.
Did you know the first-ever vending machine was a coin-operated holy water dispenser invented by Hero of Alexandria nearly 2000 years ago? Costa writes that it wasn’t until the development of markets and a society based on paid labor that devices saving time were valued and produced in number.
The first coin freed patent was in 1857, for “A Self-Acting Machine for the Delivery of Postage and Receipt Stamps.” A penny inserted would automatically feed out a stamp from a roll. By the mid-1890s more than 1,000 patent applications for coin freed machines had been received by the U.K. Patent Office. Tellingly, many of the early machines could be used either as fortune tellers or games of chance. Games with automatic payouts of a cigar, a card or a token became increasingly popular on both sides of the Atlantic in the 1890s.
In the U.K. in the first years of the 20th century, there was a spate of prosecutions against businesses, including saloons and shops, which had the automatic machines. The intent was to suppress “public corruption” and “juvenile depravity.” The enforcement of anti-gambling laws resulted in European manufacturers having to concentrate on games of skill with a low pay-out, which led to the later American domination of the world market.
Automatic Pleasures is enlivened by numerous excerpts from firsthand accounts of the era. Herbert Mills of Chicago’s Mills Novelty Company, once the world’s leading manufacturer of coin operated machines, writes about the Automatic Vaudeville or Penny Arcade business in the early 20th century:
The Penny Arcade has become a permanent institution as much as the theater, the opera, the circus, the concert, the lecture or the gymnasium, for it combines in a modified form of all of these and because it makes such universal appeal, particularly to the poorer classes, it is destined to grow constantly in popularity and size. Only about 10 per cent of the total population have an income of more than $1,200.00 per year, and therefore, the percentage of those who can afford a dollar for a concert ticket or two dollars for a theater ticket is very small. But everyone can patronize the Penny Vaudeville and afford ten cents for half an hours entertainment.
Automatic Pleasures: The History of The Coin Machine by Nic Costa, D’Aleman Publishing, 2013. Paperback, $32.42
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