The inspiration for the book was the machines the author played at British seaside resorts in the early 1970's. Examples of many of these machines are now preserved in museums and theme parks. Covering the period from the 1860's to the 1970's but with an emphasis on the more recent machines, this book describes and illustrates many different coin-operated mechanical devices. Some of these machines were purely for entertainment while others were marketing tools. Most of them were built on an individual basis - there was no mass market for most of them.
The main focus of the book is on machines that were purely intended for entertainment and were generally found at seaside resorts and other tourist locations. They are based on many different themes including haunted houses, churchyards, drunkard scenes, executions, fire fighters, clowns, sailors and puppet shows among others. You put a penny in the slot and a scene based on one of these themes would be enacted. Given that these machines were entirely mechanical, it required highly skilled engineering to make them although the scenes were basically quite simple. Even the still pictures (all in color) of these machines are impressive.
While this book is primarily about British machines, American machines are also covered. In America, the public didn't seem to go for the variety of themes that the British public liked - however, they were particularly keen on fortune telling. A chapter is devoted to these machines and how they worked.
Entertainment, however, was something that evolved from working models set up by business as marketing tools. As an example, rail and shipping companies sometimes built scale models that stood in glass cases in prominent places in their headquarters offices or other important locations such as stations and ports. Often built by the same engineers who built the full-sized locomotives and ships, these working models demonstrated their skills to potential customers. Coin-operated locomotives in glass cases could be seen as recently as the 1960's at British stations, providing money for charity. I remember putting a penny in the slot to see the locomotive spring into life - its wheels would turn but of course it couldn't actually go anywhere.
Vending machines are also covered in the book, though prior to the widespread use of electricity, their use was largely limited to products such as matches, gum and chocolate. It is right that examples of them are included but the early vending machines are somewhat less exciting than some of the other machines covered in this book.
The book also covers mechanical music machines from their origins through to the early jukeboxes, though later developments are outside the scope of this book as they are powered by electricity. It is fascinating to see pictures of the early music machines, which were large, elegant pieces of furniture. Some were located in British pubs, so fulfilling much the same role as a modern jukebox. Before auto-changing mechanisms were developed, machines only played one disc, which staff had to change at regular intervals to allow customers to hear different tunes.
In February 1971, Britain switched to decimal currency. While the pound remained as the major unit of currency, the old pennies were replaced by new pennies with a different size and value (2.4 old pennies). Millions of slot machines needed conversion if they were to remain usable. For many of the machines described in this book, it just wasn't worth the effort. If they were converted to accept a new penny instead of an old penny, the owner would be accused of exploitation. Although a halfpenny coin was initially available, everybody knew it wouldn't survive more than a few years (it didn't). So decimal currency killed off many of these old machines. Subsequent changing tastes in entertainment, as well as the increasing appeal of foreign holidays, killed of the rest - or so it seemed.
Taken for granted by British people while they were always there, the disappearance of these machines from their traditional locations created a new wave of interest in them. Some have been preserved and such examples provide the material for this book. And some companies have produced reproduction models for collectors, providing further material for the book.
The author acknowledges that he cannot guarantee the complete accuracy of all the information - some is based on a balance of opinion among various experts - but this is the first book to seriously cover this hitherto neglected aspect of British (and a little American) cultural heritage.