Cult Of The Claw
How a quirky steam shovel game clawed its way into arcades everywhere.
“The Claw is our master,” croons a green alien in the first Toy Story movie. To him, the claw’s metal grasp is an unrelenting and capricious god, “The Claw chooses who will go and who will stay.” But before claw machines plucked out Pixar characters, plush NBA basketballs, and lobsters, they were the Candy Crush of the art deco age, a cultural phenomenon found in casinos, carnivals, and drug stores across the land.
In the early 20th century, popular photographs of the excavation of the Panama Canal made steam shovels into pop mechanical icons. As objects of universal fascination, diggers appeared as toys, in picture books, and on a surprising number of watch fobs. The first claw games were a part of this trend, miniature steam shovels that excavated candy rather than Panamanian dirt.
Players put a nickel into the slot of a glass-fronted cabinet and cranked a wheel to engage a series of internal gears. The tiny bucket-jaws swung down, closed over a piece of candy, rose, and dropped the sweet into a chute where it could be retrieved.
That was it. No skill involved. Players had no control over where the crane went down or even the moment it would pick up a candy. Early versions of these games, like the Panama Digger, Erie Digger, and Iron Claw, were purely mechanical but with the spread of electricity came flashier models.
Then came the emotional and economic tsunami of the Great Depression. As fewer people were hired to operate actual steam shovels, more and more played their miniature counterparts in the hopes of striking it rich. Casinos coopted the games and replaced the candy with cash. They hired designers to create glitzy gold-trimmed cabinets that would attract more distinguished users. Claw machines could be found in fine hotels and world’s fairs. It was the claw’s golden age, fleecing players of their dimes while trying to scoop up Silver Dollars in the claw’s steel jaws.
Then, in 1951, new legislation cracked down on automated casino machines and all electric claw machines were labeled “gambling devices.” As gambling dens were raided, the authorities destroyed hundreds of claw games. Carnivals lobbied the government for two years and eventually had their games deemed “amusement devices” but strict regulations meant that these surviving models couldn’t be automated in any way. Bereft of electric power and money slots, the claw game fell into obscurity.
Two decades of digger dark ages ended in 1974 with the relaxation of Federal gambling regulations. By the early 1980s, a new high-tech incarnation colonized chain restaurants like Pizza Hut and Chuck E Cheese. Incorporating solid state circuit boards, larger claws, and more control variables, the new generation of machines garnered untold popularity.
But these programmable models became embroiled in a new controversy. Early owners didn’t program in enough wins for players. Users reacted, claiming that the games were rigged and impossible to win. People are still filing class action lawsuits against claw machine operations.
Today, claw games are a staple of supermarket foyers, cinema lobbies, and arcades. It’s remarkable to think that after more than a century, the little steam shovel candy dispenser continues to hold our fascination. From cute drugstore oddity to gambling device, carnival game, and arcade phenomenon, the century-old claw game has survived by evolving alongside its users.
Got you hooked? Here’s more:
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Why We Should Cheat At Claw Machines
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Kids Trapped In Claw Machines
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Pinball Games Banned In L.A. in 1940
Images from L.A. Times’ Photoblog