Novelty Automation is a mix of humour and engineering. It’s a new home for my arcade machines, with some guest machines made by kindred spirits. I’d run out of space in my Under The Pier Show seaside arcade and felt it was time for a new adventure.
I became hooked on making arcade machines in the 1980s, for Cabaret Mechanical Theatre in Covent Garden. The first one was the Chiropodist, which has a hole at the bottom to insert your foot for treatment. At the time I was really unsure if anyone would even take their shoe off, let alone put their foot in a dark unknown space - but they did. In fact 20,000 people did every year. I was excited by the money it made, but even more excited that people were enticed to follow weird instructions to get their money’s worth. I’ve been addicted ever since.
I started my seaside arcade ‘The Under The Pier Show’ in 2001 with a missionary zeal to ‘re-invent’ amusement arcades. Arcades used to be at the forefront of technology, but have been in decline since the early 1990s when arcade games could no longer compete with home computer games. Although my arcade has thrived, I now realise it could never help other arcades. My machines are too expensive to build and the themes are probably too odd. ‘Novelty Automation’ is a bit different. Its part of a tradition of one-off London entertainments and irreverent humour.
My favourite period of history is the late eighteenth century – rightly named the ‘enlightenment’. It’s when, I think, history starts to have relevance to our lives today. Further back history is just too alien to have much meaning for me. But the enlightenment sets the foundations of science, industry, politics and culture. The excitement and playfulness of the enlightenment gentlemen playing with science is so attractive. They shared my passion for electricity, which is now so rare. The engineers at the beginnings of the industrial revolution who developed the extraordinary power of the steam engine shared my love of the practical.
The enlightenment also had an irrepressible sense
of fun. Cartoonists like Gilray and Rowlandson established an
irreverence towards authority that is still uniquely English. Their
cartoons of the politicians and George 4th were completely
merciless. Jokes don’t age well but at the time their cartoons were so
popular that crowds gathered outside the London print shops where the
latest ones were displayed in the windows. The cartoonists made a good
living selling their prints.
The print shops were situated in Covent Garden, an area which has now lost its charm, but the nearby area east of Holborn has survived remarkably intact. Many buildings depicted in Hogarth’s prints still stand. Lawyers and jewelers still prosper so their territory has remained unchanged. 18th century museums like the wonderful Soane museum and the Hunterian museum now thrive. It’s the perfect location for Novelty Automation.
Amongst the huge variety of popular entertainments in eighteenth century London, Cox’s museum of automata was particularly successful. Cox had previously sold jewelled automata, known as ‘Sing-Songs’, to China at inflated prices. However demand stalled, so in 1772 he rented a hall near Admiralty arch and put twenty of his unsold pieces on public display. Despite the exorbitant cost of admission, it became the talk of the town. His exhibition only lasted three years but individual works or imitations remained on public display for another 60 years. The only ones to survive are a peacock in The Hermitage, Leningrad, and the amazing silver Swan that catches a fish in the Bowes museum in Yorkshire.
At the time, Britain led the world in making
automata and also in clock making (Swiss watches were then regarded as
cheap imitations). But the British automata were one offs, not
reproduced in quantity. Inventing things is much more interesting than
reproducing them. So the Swiss took over watch making and the French
took over automata making.
John Dennison revived British automata in the 1890s, opening an arcade of coin operated automata in the base of Blackpool Tower. His arcade lasted until the 1970s and tempted many manufacturers to introduce their own machines, known as ‘working models’. Compared to the French singing birds and dancing acrobats, English arcade automata were wonderfully vulgar. Burglars, crying babies, hen-pecked husbands and even execution scenes were popular themes. I was fascinated by ‘The drunk in the Graveyard’ and ‘The miser’s dream’ when I was a child and they got me started.
Traditional automata had lots of clever mechanisms all connected to a single clockwork motor (or to an electric motor in the arcade ‘working models’). I started out differently, using separate motors for each action, linking them together with timers. It seemed easier to me because in the 1960s London had several industrial surplus shops that sold cheap motors and timers. The shops have long closed, but I’ve carried on making things with the same approach. Instead of timers, my machines now have computers to control the timing and logic of the motors. I didn’t know it when I started, but industrial automation machines use the same approach. In fact, most of the parts I now use are intended for industrial automation. Even my computers, called Programmable Logic Controllers, are specialist automation components. It’s not the cheapest way to build an arcade machine, but perfect for any one-off machine that has to be reliable. It makes modifications and fault-finding simple and quick – both vital.
The ancestors of Novelty Automation are this unlikely combination of industrial automation, 18th century history, cartoons and automata. The novelty of its ancestors gradually faded, despite their ingenuity and flare. But today we are in a virtual age where arcade machines are mass-produced and most entertainment is screen based, so my homemade machines are once again a novelty.