An investment in the machine age

Slot machines that offer harmless fun and Gothic horror for the price of an old penny now make hundreds of pounds at auction, says Nick Taylor
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The Independent Culture
AGAINST A backdrop of gale-force winds, the amusement arcade's maze of machines hums and bleeps, intermittently punctuated by the clatter of pocket-sized windfalls. It's warmer in here than outside on the pier, but the blinking of the "hold" and "nudge" buttons offers a soulless welcome. The last time I visited the arcades, I was 13 and couldn't get enough of the "Penny Pushers". It was my idea of heaven to watch the tarnished coins topple from ledge to ledge, and better still if I had the right stars in my aspect and a small fortune rattled down the chute and came to rest somewhere near my ankles.

Today's visitors look bored and fashionable, as if they've only popped in to get out of the cold, and the arcade it- self has changed beyond recognition. Where once you sat in a cupboard, pretending to be Sterling Moss, you can now stand on an undulating plank and snowboard like the Beastie Boys. But if the vision before me seems removed from childhood trips to the pier, it is even further away from the world of the original arcades that lined seafronts at the turn of the century.

Alluring and mysterious, early twentieth-century slot machines immersed the viewer in a brief whirl of adventure and risk, and all for the cost of a single penny. They may not have offered the sophistication or the speed expected by modern escapists, but today they are highly collectable.

The history of the penny-in-the-slot machine predates that of the Victorian seaside town. In 200BC, Heron of Alex-andria described a vending urn which delivered water blessed by priests on receipt of a coin through a slot in its top. In fifteenth-century Rome, an anonymous genius built a machine where a coin-activated spring at the base of a wooden box shot small ivory balls into the moving arms of three carved figurines. A German, Johan Ferdinand Clebsch, invented an automatic puppet game in 1748, where two competitors tried to knock each other's moving dolls down a hole. But only in the late nineteenth century did the twin propellants of mass production and mass leisure turn the slot machine into a popular commodity.

Today, tracking down the machines of the early twentieth-century amusement halls is a specialised task. Soth-eby's claims not to have a market for them, and Bonhams, which until 1993 did run vintage slot-machine auctions, stopped when the Gaming Board ruled that it was not eligible for a temporary licence. "The 1965 Gaming Laws make it necessary to have a licence if one is dealing in any machine that takes a coin or has an element of chance to it," explains Alexander Crum-Ewing, head of the collectors' department at Bonhams. "We were refused a temporary licence on the grounds that we were in the business of selling such machines regularly, and it didn't make economic sense to pay for the full licence."

Provincial auctions, though, are proof of a buoyant market. Steve Hunt is a 25-year-old auctioneer of antique fairground rides and slot machines, and manager of the Antique Amusement Company. His interest springs from a curiosity with their internal mechanisms and a love of their decorative detail. "Slot machines are definitely becoming more sought after," he says. "Recently there's been much more interest in purchasing them as exam-ples of our culture, and the prices have been rising accordingly."

"They are very popular devices," says Crum-Ewing. "You have serious collectors, bona fide enthusiasts, who look at the machines from a cultural and historic viewpoint. And you have people who think it would be quite wacky to have one in the kitchen."

Collecting anything can be addictive, and slot machines are no exception. Once you have moved from the league of the novice, unable to differentiate your "Cailles" from your "working models", to that of the connoisseur, it isn't long before you're scouring the country for a Thirties "Hear Sidney Sing". A variation on the "Laughing Clown" model, the insertion of a penny starts up a series of lights and sounds, not to mention eerie facial movements.

On 23 March, vintage slot-machine aficionados will descend on Saffron Walden for an auction of vintage gaming machines. Over 400 lots will come under the hammer, with many of the pieces being seen for the first time in 30 years. The collection - which includes such Edwardian and Art-Deco rarities as one which dispenses electric shocks and one which tells your fortune and your weight simultaneously - was discovered in a garage in Kent, following the death of its owner, Mr Sherwood.

"It's rare for so many machines to come up for auction in one haul as these have done, and the quality of some of them is tremendous," says Alan Gold-smith, proprietor of the House on the Hill Toy Museum in Stansted Mount-fitchet, Essex, who was called in to value them. The Art-Deco "Grabbing Crane", made in Chicago in the Thirties, is a particularly fine example of something which could expect to fetch pounds 1,200.

Non-competitive "working models" can also command pounds 1,000 or so. Created between 1900 and 1920, they consist of highly detailed mechanised scenes, housed within large free-standing glass and wooden stalls. The insertion of a coin sets off lights, music, and the unravelling of invariably disturbing scenarios. "The Haunted Graveyard", made in 1920, contains a model church surrounded by a graveyard complete with an opening grave and scary white skeleton. In "The Executioner", the front door of a doll's house swings opens to reveal a flash-bulb view of a condemned man being hanged over an open trap door.

"It was probably the lack of horror films that made such entertainment popular," says Steve Hunt. "Here was a way of dealing with the frightening aspects of human existence."

Most of the smaller gambling pieces work on simple but effective mechanisms. A penny in the slot, a twist of the handle, and any number of things can happen. With "Pin Up Girl" (from the early Thirties and valued at pounds 700), two revolving displays of scantily clad women appear. When the top and the bottom half match up, the player wins their money back. With a Bryans' "Clock", (made between the Twenties and Fifties, and valued at pounds 350) the hands spin round the face of the clock - if they both stop at 12 o'clock then the machine pays out.

Goldsmith's museum has a room devoted to the smaller, wall-mounted Allwins, manufactured by Oliver Wales of Redcar in the late Twenties and Thirties. They have proved to be the most enduring of gaming devices, maintaining a steady market value of pounds 300 to pounds 500 in recent years. With the Allwins, a twist of the handle shoots a ball around a series of metal rims until it flies into the target - anything from a tin Zeppelin to a clown's hat. Even when the target is simply a random series of holes, the front panels can depict anything from naturalistic flowers to futurist bolts of lightening.

John Hayward, chief volunteer of the National Museum of Penny Slot Ma- chines in Brighton feels that the appeal of owning a machine now is as strong as it was for the sea-resort trippers who used to play them. "You put a disk in a slot and suddenly all sorts of strange things start to happen. People are shocked that they have fully internal mechanical workings but aren't powered by electricity. They still look for great big black leads coming out of the back." Not only are these pieces antiques, but they have the added benefit of "doing something"- collectables for people who can't quite get excited over an Edwardian nest of tables.

! Vintage Slot-Machine Auction, Market Square, Saffron Walden, Essex (01279 647191). Viewing, 22, 23 March, from 9am. Auction, 23 March at 11am. John Hayward, National Museum of Penny Slot Machines: 01273 608620. Steve Hunt, Antique Amusement Company: 01223 813041.