Pay to Play: A Brief History of Coin-Op Machines

Kayla Mahoney - Tour Guide


We know them, we play them, we spend way too much time and money trying to beat them, but have you ever stopped and wondered how the coin-operated machines we love so much come to be?

If you have, you’ve come to the right place! Sit back and relax while we tell you a brief history of coin-op machines, free of charge.

The Shape of Holy Water

Holy holy water Batman | Wikipedia

Picture it: Ancient Greece. 50 AD.

There’s a crisis at hand.

No, the dinosaurs aren’t back for revenge – people are taking too much holy water, free of charge! Apparently, in ancient Alexandria, people could just go up to a valve and get holy water for their holy needs. Also apparently, they weren’t very good at taking a normal amount of water, so Alexandria was facing a holy water shortage.

Enter our hero. Literally.

Enter Hero of Alexandria, the brilliant mind who gave us inventions that lead the way to wind power, syringes, force pumps, and the coin-operated machine.

Hero devised a machine that portioned out a small amount of holy water when a user dropped a coin in a slot. When dropped, the coin would fall into a pan connected to a lever that dispensed the holy water through an open valve that closed shut when the weight of the coin was displaced. 1 People could now get the correct amount of holy water, and ecumenical justice was restored.

Wish You Were Here

Percival Everitt giving folks #FOMO since 1883. | Atlas Obscura

It wasn’t until the 1800s that people came back to the idea of coin-operated machines. In 1883 in London, a man named Percival Everitt invented a machine that dispensed postcards, a relatively new way to brag to your friends that you were on vacation.

Soon, his machines were installed in railway stations and post offices everywhere, proving that we’ve been finding ways to avoid human interaction for years now.

Let Me Entertain You

It’s just as hard as it looks… | Pinterest

After the success of the postcard machines, coin-operated vending machines began to dole out numerous small items like gum, chocolate, newspapers, and even tobacco.

But coin-op technology was not only regulated to sales, soon strength testers and trade simulators (machines that when started showcased a scene such as a chimney sweeping or characters moving around a set) started popping up at bars and saloons everywhere. The man who patented the first strength testing machine in 1885 even found success with a machine that gave the user a small electric shock. Apparently, back in 1885, getting buzzed had a whole different connotation.

Moving Picture Perfect

Let’s give em’ something to peep about |

The invention of the American Mutoscope in 1886 really cemented the public’s love for all things coin-operated.

With the mutoscope, a user could look through a viewer and see images that were attached to a circular core that the user would spin with a crank to make the images look as if they were in one continuous frame. Eventually, the crank was replaced by a mechanical device that spun on its own rather than manually. These new mutoscope parlors became a cheaper alternative to the vaudeville shows of the time, and were often filled with salacious content like scantily clad women playing the ukulele and scantily clad women putting their shoes on. (Oolala!)

Prohibition Ruins Everything

Aw shot. | iCollector

With the shutting down of bars and saloons during prohibition, coin-op machines were close to extinction as well, until the A.B.T. Manufacturing Company (found success making coin-operated skill games and placed them at amusement parks and took them to trade shows around the country.

One of the most successful was a game was called Target Skill that tested players aim and skill with a shot and ammunition. These games shifted the focus of coin-op machines from novelties and gambling to fun real, games that stood on their own.

At the beginning of the Great Depression, these new arcades became even more successful since people couldn’t afford their usual pastimes. These games became a quick and inexpensive respite in a world that seemed hopeless.

Enter Pinball

Why is getting a ball in a hole so fun? | Wikimedia Commons

Though versions of pinball have existed since the 1600s, the pinball games we are used to seeing today started in the 1930s with a game invented by Harry Williams called Contact.

Contact was the first iteration of the game to have a ball released from a bonus hole in the center, and used lights and bells to attract customers to play 2.

When I Say Ping, You Say…

Sometimes you’re pinging when you should be ponging. | Wikimedia Commons

The earliest known coin-operated video game was invented by the people who needed it most: college students.

In 1971, students at Stanford University created Galaxy Game, a version of a game called Spacewar invented by a man named Steve Russell in the 60s. The next year, Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney invented the game Pong and the video game industry was born.

When home consoles and self-gaming setups became popular, arcades and coin-operated gaming parlors started to fade away. Until industry leaders remembered that people love two things more than anything else: nostalgia and booze!

With the advent of places like Dave & Busters and Barcade, the coin-op industry is once again thriving. So the next time you step up to a game of pinball or Pac Man with a coin in one hand and a beer in the other, give some props to Hero of Alexandria, without whom we might have never discovered coin-op games.

And we certainly wouldn’t have had any holy water left over without him, either.

Notes & Gossip 📌

  1. Smith, E. The History of Vending Machines Goes Back to the 1st Century. Atlas Obscura. 2018
  2. Smith, Alexander. Historical Interlude: the History of Coin-Op Part One, the Rise, and Fall of the Penny Arcade. They Create Worlds

Scholarly Shout-outs 🌟

  • Smith, Alexander. (2015, October). Historical Interlude: the History of Coin-Op Part One, the Rise, and Fall of the Penny Arcade.
  • Smith, Ernie. (2015, August). The History of Vending Machines Goes Back to the 1st Century.

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