In his 38 years in the carnival business, Ernie Collins never had occasion to stop and think about the possibility of agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation putting him under surveillance. Collins was just a barker, a boardwalk salesman who convinced other people to play games. One of his leading draws was a tabletop contraption that allowed the user to maneuver a tiny steam shovel with a wheel. Get it right and you could use its maws to pluck a silver dollar from a sea of kernel corn. They were known as diggers.

Collins had 12 of them—Miami Diggers, the most popular of the era—and he had people lining up, dimes in hand, for a crack. On September 22, 1951, he was in Florence, Alabama when he took a call from a friend in the business: Someone just had their diggers seized by the FBI in North Carolina as a result of the Johnson Act, which declared the devices to be no different than slot machines. They were not to cross state lines. Collins was told to be careful.

Collins would later tell a judge he didn’t think the Act applied to carnival games; they were just novelties. The next day, he packed them up and drove to Winona, Mississippi. There, he began to set up his other attractions but left the machines with a friend, Pappy Gentsch. It would be the last time he ever saw them.

“He tried to hide them,” James Roller, a former amusements operator who knew Gentsch, tells mental_floss. “The FBI took the set of diggers and destroyed them with sledgehammers, then burned them.”

Collins may not have gotten rich off the diggers—although their patent owner, William Bartlett, certainly did—but it was a moot point. The predecessor of the claw machine that would go on to populate almost every Walmart, Pizza Hut, and amusement park around the country had just been made illegal.

Courtesy James Roller

The modern claw machine typically stands vertically, lit from the inside with eye-searing brightness, and can tempt passersby with everything from cheap plush toys to Beats headphones or iPods. For 20 or 30 seconds, the user is in charge of operating a motorized trolley with the potential for reward; to see the multi-pronged claw scrape the sides of a stuffed panda, its grip strength too weak to snatch it from its Plexiglas prison, is to know true disappointment.

The components may have changed, but that hypnotic interaction between player and claw has been going on for nearly 100 years. Some amusements historians believe the machines existed as early as the 1890s, mechanical dioramas that were built to entice people fascinated by the machinery used in constructing the Panama Canal.

But the first mass-produced unit didn’t arrive until 1926. That’s when the Erie Digger began inhaling the spare change of players.

“It’s a very complex little machine,” says Roller, who worked in carnivals from 1960 to 1977 and now restores antique diggers for collectors. “It took skill that had to be taught and demonstrated.”

The Erie, which was named after the equipment used to build the Erie Canal, allowed players to operate a steam shovel that swung around in a wide arc. A hand crank on the front allowed them to make a descent into a pile of hard candy to grab a small prize. The wheel was sensitive: A wild spin could get the crane moving, while a light, radio-dial touch could zero in on a target. A game could go on for two or three minutes, with the player stopping for a smoke break.

In their earliest days, Roller says, the diggers proved to be a durable carnival attraction because they didn’t require electricity. When it got dark and other amusements were shutting down or running on gas, operators lit candles and placed them inside the Erie's glass box. When the Great Depression hit, they became a cheap way to risk what little money people had for the chance at a child’s trinket—maybe even a dollar wrapped around a pocket knife.

“No matter how many times a player plays the Digger, he has the opportunity of picking up some new and valuable piece of merchandise,” vendor P.C. Smith wrote in a 1935 issue of Automatic Age. “Novelties, jewelry, cameras, and hundreds of other worthwhile articles.”

By the 1930s, diggers had grown into pieces of furniture. They populated bus stations, train stations, high-end hotels, cigar shops, and drugstores. Manufacturers like Exhibit and Mutoscope used different themes: a steamship loading cargo, a warehouse stocking items. The cabinets were built out of walnut or mahogany, tall and impressive. Proprietors bought them in the hopes of making a little profit and keeping foot traffic from walking out the door.

The most successful of the lot was one they couldn’t buy: the Miami Digger, or Nickel Digger, the tabletop unit patented by carnival operator William Bartlett in 1932. “He realized the shortcoming of the Erie,” Roller says. “He was a genius as far as engineering goes.”

The Miami Digger used an electric motor. While it reduced the skill needed, it sped up turns at the wheel so more people could play—and pay—in less time. Bartlett also swapped out the candy floor with a pile of nickels and put bundled piles of coins wrapped in cellophane or silver dollars within the claw’s reach. “There was nothing but money in them,” Roller says.

That was especially true for Bartlett. Instead of selling his machines, he hired operators and dispatched thousands of diggers to carnivals around the country. Every day, Western Union would arrive with his majority share of the proceeds. “He was basically the tech-mogul billionaire of his day,” Roller says. “He owned three nightclubs in Miami, all from diggers.”

That fortune didn’t come from children. Kids were usually just a cover story for parents to approach the machines. “Pretty soon the kid was off doing something else, and the parent would still be there, playing," Roller says. The prizes in the premium cabinets—cigarette lighters, watches—reflected their audience.

Bartlett, who grew rich from their repeat business, died in 1948. He wouldn’t live to see his enterprise go up in smoke.

When Congress passed the Johnson Act—also known as the Transportation of Gambling Devices Act—in 1951, the intended effect was to crack down on organized crime syndicates that had been profiting from slot machines and other gaming paraphernalia. It prohibited anyone from transporting an electronic device of chance across state lines, forcing operators to permanently park their traveling units.

“A lot of carnival people thought just owning them was an offense,” Roller says. “It wasn’t. It was about transporting them. But a lot of machines still got hidden away or destroyed.”

Carnival workers, though not specifically targeted by law enforcement, were still subject to prosecution. Almost overnight, the Miami Diggers began to disappear from shows, destroyed either by wary operators or by officials who seized them. (The Art Deco lobby and store machines were spared: they stayed in a fixed location.)

An amusements proprietor named Lee Moss didn’t suffer the loss of business quietly. He gathered other carnival owners and lobbied to have the diggers reclassified. A compromise was reached: The carnivals could keep them, but they’d have to be manually operated like the Erie; there couldn’t be money offered as a prize; the prizes couldn’t be worth more than $1; and the coin slot would have to be removed. The government was also taxing each machine $10.

By the time Roller started working in the industry in 1960, a digger operator would position himself between a row of 12 or 14 machines, acting as a liaison between customers and his wares. If they wanted to play, they’d hand him a dime; he’d pull a string tied to the lever inside the machine that would set the crane for a new game.

Roller knew how to push buttons. “If they missed, I’d say, ‘Ha! Got you!’ Then, if they got something, they’d point and go, ‘Now I got you!’ We made it a competition.”

The beds of candy had largely disappeared—it was sticky and hard to clean. Kernel corn and beans became common, and operators would learn how to position prizes in the pile to make it harder (or easier) to grab something. Giving away 25 cents worth of goods for every dollar a machine earned was considered viable. If a player didn’t like what they’d won, they could trade it for a free game. Since most of the value was in the play, Roller made that deal a lot. “It was a dime. You just hoped you made enough to survive.”

Diggers were so popular that he eventually earned enough to open his own carnival. “I made $35,000 one year,” he says. “Different times.”

There was finally good news for Roller and carnival workers everywhere who were getting tired of pulling strings. In 1973, having run into murky definitions of “gambling devices” in court and with few seizures on file, the FBI largely abandoned the Johnson Act. 

“The coin slots came back in,” Roller says. And with them came the introduction of the modern, trolley-style claw machines seen today.

While that style dates back to the 1930s, it wasn’t until Europe and Japan began to export the machines in the 1970s and early 1980s that it began to proliferate. While less skill was required to operate them, they did address a flaw of the crane-style devices. “With a claw, you can reach just about any coordinates in a square box. But with something like the Erie, there are places it just can’t reach in the corners. That caused problems with authorities.”

Manufacturers like Sega and Taito had been making trolley-style boxes as early as the 1960s, sometimes in horizontal cabinets that spat out watches or jewelry to soldiers on military bases. By the time they reached the U.S., the larger, heavier machines attracted the eye of plush toy vendors. With units big enough to display and deploy stuffed animals that were cheap to stock, the modern claw machine had arrived.

“Earlier machines only had two buttons for once forward [and] once sideways movement, making it much harder to win,” says Allen Kevorkov, a collector and webmaster of BeTheClaw.com. “Around that time they started making joystick machines, as well.”

Claw machines became ubiquitous in the 1980s, popping up in department stores, in Pizza Hut locations, and at the growing number of Chuck E. Cheese party theaters. Operators could set the claw strength, Kevorkov says, but nothing else. More modern machines can be programmed to deliver prizes at scheduled intervals, although there’s plenty of skill involved—and still a concern state legislation could muscle in on some of the machines with larger prizes like GoPro cameras.

“I don’t know of any coin-operated machine going strong after 100 years,” Roller says. “Jukeboxes, pinball, they’re gone.”

The earlier machines have become collector’s items, particularly the elaborate Art Deco standing models of the 1930s that the now-retired Roller restores via his business, Vintage Amusements. The Erie machines, he says, aren’t terribly hard to find, having survived the Johnson Act largely intact.

Sometimes, collectors want them. And sometimes, when he opens one up to renovate it, he can see where the candle wax has dripped, the smoke having stained the cabinet’s interior. It's a remnant of the long nights when players would attempt to master their claw skills, dime after dime.