HowToBasic via YouTube
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Dime After Dime: A Gripping History of Claw Machines

HowToBasic via YouTube
HowToBasic via YouTube

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 “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.

A Crochet Carousel Turns an Art Exhibition Into a Playground

The Polish-born crochet artist Olek, who completely crochet-bombed two houses in Scandinavia this summer, has turned her crafty attentions to even more complicated structures. For Magic City, a street art exhibition in Dresden, Germany, she crocheted a merry-go-round.

She was inspired by a quote from the middle-grade novel A Small Free Kiss in the Dark by Australian author Glenda Millard: "Wars come and wars go. Things change, but the carousel is always here. It reminds people of the good times." Olek’s latest work has focused on the plight of refugees fleeing from war.

The sparkly pink-and-gold carousel is covered in flowers and hearts. The characters are slightly psychedelic, with pink elephants and scattered mushrooms wedged in between horses and swans.

The “carousel is like life,” Olek says in a statement emailed to mental_floss. “You never know for how long is it going to spin for.” As far as we can tell, though, you're not allowed to go for a ride on this one.

Magic City is open until January 17.

All images courtesy Olek.

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Inside a Clown's Insurance Policy

In September 2008, a user named PosadaClown had what he claimed was “the worst night of my clowning career” on the message board During a performance at a Northumberland, UK club—attended by his whole family, as well as his “gorgeous new wife, who herself likes to don the red nose and baggy trousers from time to time”—the clown “did a stunt which involved jumping off a trampoline onto a skateboard,” he wrote. “I was supposed to shoot offstage but ended up in the front row, where I managed to land right on top of the mayor's wife, breaking her leg. The poor woman was in agony and a few in the crowd took exception and beat me quite badly.” He wrote later that she was “suing [him] for ‘malicious bodily harm.’”

"Crumbs that is a bad story," user Millicent—"not a clown"—responded. "I do hope you're insured."

Yes, clown insurance is a thing. Injuries to carnival-style artists and spectators are rare, but can come as swiftly as a pie to the face and can be as sobering as a blast of seltzer water—so several companies that insure events and entertainers offer policies specifically for clowns. Among them are K&K Insurance, Westpointe, and Stratum, which lists “sample claims” such as “Someone could slip and fall because supplies are left on the floor or water spills” or “A balloon could pop and hurt someone.” The World Clown Association also offers insurance to its members.

Andrew Moler, business manager of the WCA, says that 1637 clowns have purchased a policy through the organization, but that “there are very few claims, and they’re usually what insurance agencies called ‘nuisance claims,’” filed in the hopes the defendant will pay out a small sum to make the claim go away.

In his five years at the WCA, Moler can recall only two big cases. The first involved a balloon routine: The clown gathered volunteers from the audience, sat them on a series of balloons, and then popped each one, dropping the participants’ buttocks to the floor. A man claimed injury and sued the clown, the World Clown Association, and the mall where the event took place. The case went to trial and the insurers ended up paying “tens of thousands of dollars,” Moler says.

The other large case—at least by clown insurer standards—a member of the WCA spilled face paint on a carpet at a child’s birthday party. The homeowner sued for the cost of cleaning the entire house.

Insuring clowns is usually quiet work that generates little profit. “It’s a low liability group,” says Ashley Robinson, a representative for Francis L. Dean and Associates, which underwrites Stratum’s clown policy, and “it’s not expensive to have a policy.” Her company’s clown coverage has a $350 annual premium. The WCA’s insurance costs $140 per year, in addition to the cost of membership. 

Entertainer insurance in general is “a tiny market,” according to James Lynch of the Insurance Information Institute—so tiny that the institute doesn’t even have monetary figures on it—and clown insurance a tiny subset of that.

Despite its microscopic place on the insurance landscape, one company stays afloat while dealing exclusively in this type of policy. It’s the one that more or less pioneered insurance for clowns and similar performers: the Specialty Insurance Agency, based in New Richmond, Wis.

In 1992, the Osman Shrine, a Shriners affiliate in St. Paul, Minn., decided to stop covering the clowns among its members—who entertain children as part of the group’s mission of merriment—and asked them to provide their own insurance. One of those Shriner clowns was Al Fellerman, who was also an agent for Farmers Insurance Group.

According to Stephanie Weiss, the current head of Specialty—and Fellerman's daughter—Fellerman found that there was no policy available to clowns. So he used his connections in the industry to form Clowns of the U.S., a broker that provided policies to him and his big-nosed brethren at the Shrine. After a few years, he opened it up to all clowns. In 2004, Fellerman retired and Weiss (not a performer herself) took over, rebranding the company Specialty Insurance Agency and moving it to Wisconsin. Fellerman passed away in 2014.

Today, Specialty insures 5000 clowns, jugglers, balloon twisters, face painters, magicians, street performers, caricature artists, fire dancers, aerialists, and other entertainers. Until last year it insured hypnotists, but when the company changed underwriters, the new one deemed hypnotists too much of a liability. “They were the smallest percentage of our business but they had the highest number of claims,” Weiss says. “Too many people were bumping their heads against each other and jumping into imaginary mosh pits.”

Currently, Specialty offers two tiers of policies. The first costs $260 to $280 a year and covers performers for up to $2 million of liability. It’s offered to lower-risk entertainers—those who practice standard clowning, puppeteering, and magic. The second tier, costing $350 to $375 a year and offering a liability cap of $5 million, is extended to aerialists and fire artists, whose work presents higher risks.

But even among the riskier pool of clients, few claims have been dramatic or costly, according to Weiss. “Most performers have safety precautions in place,” she says. As for cases in the first tier, Weiss recalls an incident in which the extending nose of a puppeteer’s Pinocchio mannequin poked a child in the eye and one in which a clown failed to see a screen door upon dashing into a client’s house and wrecked it. In the second, riskier tier, Weiss remembers an incident in which wind toppled an aerialist’s rig mid performance and it landed on the arm of a spectator.

The World Clown Association’s policy stipulates what parts of an act it insures, covering juggling and three types of animals: dogs, doves, and rabbits. It doesn’t cover other animals, nor does it cover acrobatics or anything involving flames.

Although the liability risks of clowning are low, Moler says insurance “does offer peace of mind, one less thing to worry about while performing.”

And a clown should be, if anything, carefree.


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