Tim Hunkin May 2007

Read this page in Spanish, translated by Maria Ramos

Coin operated machines have many attractions but perhaps the most obvious is simply that they are good at keeping peoples' attention. Once someone has inserted a coin, they will read all the instructions diligently and concentrate fully on the machine until it has finished – they have ‘invested’ and so are keen ‘to get their money’s worth’. Compare this to art galleries or museums, where most people wander around in a daze most of the time and rarely read any of the instructions on interactive exhibits.

From an engineering perspective, coin-operation makes machines more reliable and easier to maintain. Compared to interactive museum exhibits and art gallery installations, where buttons are constantly pushed and things run continuously, coin-ops get much lighter usage as they only work when a coin is inserted. The reduced maintenance makes it practical for coin-op machines to have much more exciting, more elaborate mechanisms, and to dispense things. 

From an inventor's perspective, coin-op machines are equally attractive. Few inventors manage to make a living from patents, and those that do have to spend most of their time marketing their inventions and protecting them - working as salesmen or lawyers. Inventing machines with coin slots eliminates all this boring work – the prototype machine starts taking money and leaves the inventor free to start the next machine.

From a film makers perspective coin operation is brilliant way of getting short films seen and generating an income from them. The films in my simulators are watched by thousands of people every year and they each pay £1 to view them!  

From a general artistic perspective, the idea of people paying to be entertained rather than to own ‘art’ is appealing. It is much less elitist - accessible to many more people – and avoids any need to play the bizarre fine art game (using the right language and impressing the right people).  A coin operated machine can have just as much grace and subtlety as any conventional art, but the volume of the laughter it provokes and weight of the coins it takes are satisfying simple measures of its success. The difficult idea of artistic value (often a subject of great angst) doesn't have to be so important.

The final attraction is that compared to the whims of the fine art world or the labyrinthine public funding of museums, the cash is satisfyingly real. The weight of a bag full of coins is more satisfying than any cheque. 

Putting a bunch of unique coin operated machines together on a seaside pier has even greater attractions. A single machine in isolation, however brilliant, is often regarded as a bit of an oddity. However, a critical mass of machines together creates an infectious atmosphere of people enjoying themselves, and a pier is the perfect location.  Place the same machines in an art gallery, a museum and a seaside pier and people will react completely differently to them. People express reverence, bafflement, or are sometimes provoked by the exhibits in an art gallery. In a museum or science centre, people will struggle to understand the exhibits. On a pier people are simply expecting to be entertained and have a laugh. I’ve made things for all three and the pier is my favorite. People express more obvious delight in the pier arcade than in a museum or art gallery. An arcade also has none of the worthiness of a museum or the hype of an art gallery.

When asked what I do for a living, I can say I’m an inventor, and engineer and cartoonist, a science communicator or lots of other things but I now just say ‘I run an amusement arcade’.  Partly I enjoy the disapproving reaction it can provoke – people change the subject or end the conversation. Mainly though I say it because I am really proud of The Under the Pier Show. Its wonderfully satisfying hearing the shrieks of laughter and watching people enjoy my handiwork. Its satisfying emptying the cash out of the machines and counting it all up. It’s satisfying because it is genuinely unique – there really isn’t anything else like it. Its satisfying because its so completely straightforward - people paying to be entertained, the profits (split 50/50 between me and the pier owner) funding new machines. So the arcade provides the motivation and the cash to invent stuff, which is what I enjoy doing most.

 The whole enterprise is ridiculously fragile – the machines are only just robust enough, people only just behave well enough, and its all only just above high tide level. At any moment the whole enterprise could be closed by the ever increasing regulations, bankrupted by some personal injury claim or most likely simply flooded. I do sometimes have sleepless nights about it all, but the fragility is partly attractive – living dangerously makes me feel very alive. 



 I have tried to persuade museums to make some of their interactive exhibits coin operated, but the usual obstacle is that visitors can’t be expected to pay if they have already paid an entrance fee. However, visitors could be given a number of token coins on entry, or the entrance ticket itself could be a strip of perforated card ‘tokens’. Visitors would then have to chose which exhibits to use and, once they had inserted a token, be much more likely to ‘invest’ more time in it. This would be particularly useful for subtle exhibits which need time to get absorbed in. 




 I guess the art world has never embraced coin operation partly due to conservatism and partly snobbery. Conservatism -  because fine art has traditionally been created to be purchased by rich individuals, not for public spectacle. Snobbery - because fine art is regarded as somehow exclusive, and coin operation would reduce it to the level of the fairground.

Today however, much ‘installation’ art is in practice created for public spectacle, and could gain a lot from coin slots. For example, a characteristic of ‘art’ video is that it is slow and takes a while to get absorbed in – investing a coin to start watching would provide the motivation to persevere, not to wander away after a few seconds.

My limited experience of the art world is that galleries are pretty clueless about maintenance – most exhibitions of automata and mechanical sculptures I’ve ever visited have been full of broken, non-functioning pieces - coin operation would help with this too!



The UK and Europe are fortunate in having relatively high value coins  but the US only has quarters in wide circulation. However, note acceptors are today a practical alternative to coin acceptors. My experience is that note acceptors are reliable and surprisingly cheap. (I use an Innovative Technologies NV10 which cost about £90). An alternative for an arcade is to operate on tokens. Change machines simply exchange notes for token coins. Tokens can be bought from various coin suppliers and are usually stamped with a unique logo for the arcade. Advantages of tokens are that the cost of the tokens can be easily changed to keep up with inflation and that people often keep a few as souvenirs, which provides an additional income.