Slot Machine Age: A 1964 British Newsreel Angsts Over Whether Automated Machines Will Displace People

When Amer­i­cans hear the phrase “slot machine,” they think of pen­sion­ers com­pul­sive­ly pulling levers day and night in Las Vegas. But when the British hear it, a much less bleak vision comes to their minds: the auto­mat­ed dis­pen­sa­tion of cig­a­rettes, cof­fee, gro­ceries, and even entire meals. Or at least such a vision came to the minds of Britons back in 1964, the year of the British Pathé news­reel above. With its bril­liant col­ors and jazzy score, Slot Machine Age proud­ly dis­played to the view­ing pub­lic the range of coin-oper­at­ed won­ders already mak­ing their way into dai­ly life, from pay phones and pin­ball machines to shoe-buffers and bot­tle-recy­cling sta­tions.

“This inven­tion, this brain­child of the boffins, has cre­at­ed a new dis­ease,” declares the announc­er: “slot machine fever.” Again, this has noth­ing to do with gam­bling, and every­thing to do with automa­tion. Near­ly 60 years ago, buy­ing some­thing from a machine was a nov­el­ty to most peo­ple in even the most high­ly indus­tri­al­ized coun­tries on Earth.

Yet even then the automat, where din­ers pulled all their dish­es from coin-oper­at­ed win­dows, had in cer­tain cities been an insti­tu­tion for decades. Alas, such estab­lish­ments did­n’t sur­vive the explo­sion of fast food in the 1970s, whose busi­ness mod­el made use of more, not less, human labor.

But in the 1960s, the age of the robot seemed well on its way — so much so that this phrase titles anoth­er, slight­ly lat­er British Pathé pro­duc­tion show­cas­ing a “semi-com­put­er­ized ver­sion of the dumb­wait­er” being tried out in hotel rooms. From it the film’s hon­ey­moon­ing cou­ple extract cock­tails, peanuts, tooth­paste, and “that last cig­a­rette of the day.” It even offers read­ing mate­r­i­al, a con­cept since tried again in France, Poland, San Fran­cis­co, and an eccen­tric book­store in Toron­to, but the glo­ri­ous age of all-around con­ve­nience pre­dict­ed in these news­reels has yet to mate­ri­al­ize. We cit­i­zens of the 21st cen­tu­ry are in many cas­es hard­ly pleased, but rather anx­ious about what we see as our grow­ing depen­dence on automa­tion. Still, with the coro­n­avirus-induced vogue for con­tact-free pay­ment and din­ing, per­haps it’s time to give the automat anoth­er chance.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Watch 85,000 His­toric News­reel Films from British Pathé Free Online (1910–2008)

Hear Alan Watts’s 1960s Pre­dic­tion That Automa­tion Will Neces­si­tate a Uni­ver­sal Basic Income

Buck­min­ster Fuller Rails Against the “Non­sense of Earn­ing a Liv­ing”: Why Work Use­less Jobs When Tech­nol­o­gy & Automa­tion Can Let Us Live More Mean­ing­ful Lives

Hunter S. Thomp­son Chill­ing­ly Pre­dicts the Future, Telling Studs Terkel About the Com­ing Revenge of the Eco­nom­i­cal­ly & Tech­no­log­i­cal­ly “Obso­lete” (1967)

Experts Pre­dict When Arti­fi­cial Intel­li­gence Will Take Our Jobs: From Writ­ing Essays, Books & Songs, to Per­form­ing Surgery and Dri­ving Trucks

Watch the “Bib­lio-Mat” Book-Vend­ing Machine Dis­pense Lit­er­ary Delight

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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  • Terry Walsh says:

    “But when the British hear it, a much less bleak vision comes to their minds: the auto­mat­ed dis­pen­sa­tion of cig­a­rettes, cof­fee, gro­ceries, and even entire meals.”

    Not real­ly true, Im afraid.…and it’s ‘dis­pens­ing’ not dis­pen­sa­tion’.

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