Why I Don’t Play the Machines

by Duncan Lunan

After the sombre ending of ‘Lost on the Moon’ last week, maybe it’s time to strike a lighter note.  My dislike of fruit machines, one-armed bandits, puggies, call them what you will, dates back to my teens, once I was old enough to collect my late father from the ‘19th Hole’ at Old Troon Golf Club, as it then was.  I was shaken to discover that before leaving, he would write a cheque for five pounds in silver from the bar, and put it all into a machine on the way out, while continuing to insist at other times that he couldn’t afford even sixpence more on my three shillings and sixpence a week pocket money, when everyone else in my school class was on 10 shillings or a pound.  We had an English teacher who was sufficiently nosy to go round the class asking everyone, which made it obvious why I never went with them to the café or the chipshop.  But at least it showed that I wasn’t merely being standoffish.

Other people whom I knew later were more successful.  The late Mel Adam had the machine in the Irvine Sports Club so thoroughly taped that he could guarantee drinks all round every time he went there, unless someone else beat him to the Jackpot at the crucial moment.  The late John Braithwaite claimed to have similar powers, but that was just his way of winding up people who were notoriously tight-fisted.  The look on their faces was something to see when they realised they’d been fooled, but it gave me a line I still use when invited to play the machines – “No thanks, I once put 10 pence into one and lost it”.

Fig. 1. Duncan Lunan with the late Prof. Oscar Schwiglhofer, c.1985, by Chris O’Kane

In early 1967 the late Prof. Oscar Schwiglhofer  (Fig. 1), founder of the Scottish Branch of the British Interplanetary Society which by then had become independent as ASTRA, was given the chance to use a simulation of a Moon landing on a Strathclyde University computer programme.  Computer time was so expensive in those days that Oscar was allowed only one shot on the simulation, during which he ran out of fuel and crashed.  But he printed it anyway, in the fourth issue of the society’s magazine Spacereport, which he had founded in January that year, reprinting press stories about spaceflight which he had photocopied at Phillips in Hamilton, where he was a Senior Design Engineer, in the days when photocopiers were as rare as hens’ teeth.  He had pre-printed all the covers beforehand, later inking in the dates and issue numbers, and thinking that press cuttings would be contained in all of them, he put the word ‘Confidential’ across the cover to make sure there would be no problem about copyright  (Fig. 2). 

Fig. 2. Spacereport March 1967, cover by Oscar Schwiglhofer

As the fourth issue was a print-out of Oscar’s simulation, and the fifth on ‘Climatics’ was part of Oscar’s contribution to the Interstellar Project which generated the book Man and the Stars, the ‘Confidential’ label on them caused considerable hilarity in the society.  But not all our members were interested in computers, and quite a few of them left because the society had become ‘too technical’.

Fig. 3. Link Trainer

My own experiences with simulations and simulators had not been positive.  The first was with a Link Trainer  (Fig. 3,, during my year in the Air Training Corps, 1960-61, before I had to give up because it clashed too badly with my school work.  I couldn’t take a trick with it:  there was no feedback and no sensation of control, much less being able to convince myself that I was actually flying an aircraft.  The machine ended up in a flat spin from which I couldn’t extricate it.  The next simulation I tried was of a racing car, at the Kelvin Hall Shows in 1966, and there I had the same problem;  I had already passed both motorcycle and car driving tests, and driven around Britain on both, but the ‘car’ simulation had no feedback and I had no feeling of control, unable to keep it on the crudely simulated ‘road’ ahead.  When eventually I did get to take the controls of an aircraft, on the aerial archaeology flight for which I was co-ordinator in 1982  (ON, 17th July 2022), I had no such problems.  Admittedly I was on fly-by-wire, and giving commands to the autopilot rather than controlling the aircraft directly;  but when I was given a flying lesson for my 70th birthday, I was allowed direct control and although I had a tendency to fly nose-up, losing speed, I’m sure I could have overcome that with more lessons.

Fig. 4. London Planetarium, Baker Street, at first DL visit, 1959 (Madame Tussauds beyond), Photo by Duncan Lunan

After the Link Trainer, my next such experience was with an ‘Air Gunnery Simulator’, in the annexe linking the London Planetarium to Madame Tussauds  (Fig. 4), in the early 60s before slot machines completely took over from the astronomy displays on the ground floor.  It was supposed to be the latest thing, but when it started, the visuals proved to be the beginning of a black-and-white RAF training film, Fighter Command Attack No. 1, 2 and 3, which was described in Paul Brickhill’s Reach for the Sky, Chapter 12, and denounced by Douglas Bader.  More information on it is available at ‘RAF Fighter Tactics 1939-41’, War and Thunder,, 17th July 2013.  It showed a rear gunner’s view of Spitfires attacking one at a time, in line astern, each one exposing his underside to the gun turret as he peeled off.  The tactic was also hated by the late Capt. Eric ‘Winkle’ Brown, who preferred a head-on attack which gave his Martlet fighter a chance, even against the armour and superior armament of the Focke-Wulf Condor 200.  (Paul Beaver, Winkle, The Extraordinary Life of Britain’s Greatest Pilot, reviewed ON, August 6th 2023).  Recognising it, although I’d never seen it before, I was able to stack up a high kill rate – the words ‘fish in a barrel’ seemed apt.  But I didn’t get much fun out of it, especially since I was shooting down our own side, and much preferred the star shows in the Planetarium itself.  They had live presenters in those days, and the Senior Lecturer Dr. John Ebdon had given me a complimentary free pass, which I used assiduously that summer while learning the constellations.  In 2002 I was privileged to lecture with a Zeiss planetarium projector, like the one at the London Planetarium, at the Glasgow Science Centre before it was replaced;  but even then, although I presented the show with Mario DiMaggio, the planetarium manager, it all had to be computer-programmed beforehand, which took away some of the spontaneity.

In 1979, on my whirlwind tour of US space centres  (ON July 31st 2022), I was allowed to sit in a Space Shuttle cockpit simulator at the Rockwell International plant in Palmdale, California  (Fig. 5).  Although it wasn’t turned on, it was one of the best moments of the trip and what particularly impressed me was how purposive the layout was:  even inactive and facing a blank wall, it seemed to want me to power it up and take it somewhere.  I saw the same machine or an identical one at the Johnson Space Centre in 1986, when my friend Jim Oberg took me on a tour of the full-sized Shuttle simulator  (ON August 14th 2022.  I suppose if either of them had been turned on, I might have been more impressed with simulators generally  (as it was. I couldn’t keep the grin off my face – Fig. 6.)  The cockpit layout was still much the same  (Fig. 7), but by the end of the Shuttle programme in 2011 it had changed drastically, with most of the instruments replaced by screens  (Fig. 8).

The same year, during the Glasgow Parks Astronomy Project, one of our helpers who was studying at the new Caledonian University took me to the Student’s Union, which was then housed in a temporary inflatable structure entered through an airlock.  I was still more impressed six years later, when I entered a similar one in Portsmouth Dockyard and found it was covering a dry dock, within which the entire starboard side of the Tudor warship Mary Rose was suspended vertically in scaffolding, in a fogbank generated by the near-zero temperature water sprays which were flushing the salt out of the jet-black timbers.  I wrote to the BBC suggesting it would make a fabulous location for a Doctor Who story  (I had had a story on the short leet in 1971, so I wasn’t writing as an unknown), but I heard nothing back and I think they missed a great opportunity.

I was much less impressed by what my friend had taken me to the Calley Union to see, which was a fabulous new computer experience called ‘Space Invaders’.  I played a few games out of politeness, but to be honest I was bored to tears – and when the late Chris Boyce tried to entice me into more advanced games in the mid-1980s, all I could see was the same ‘look for a threat and shoot at it’ in a supposedly 3-D setting.  People were telling me that computer gaming was so wonderful, it cut into their work, socialising and sleep, but I just couldn’t see myself going there or sparing the time for it.  To this day, from time to time people are astonished that I don’t have any games on my computer, and turn them down flat when they offer to install them.

During the Project, we had a meeting with a team from D.C. Thomson’s, who were looking for ideas for a proposed new series of space comic books.  They didn’t go with any of our suggestions, but among other interesting facts, they told us that their comic books were mostly drawn by artists in Spain, to avoid Union problems, and were written by old ladies eking out their pensions, who didn’t mind supplying the very detailed descriptions required, despite the low rates of payment.  In one case, a crime comic featured a meeting of gangsters in a pub, and the writer had specified that there was a one-armed bandit in the corner.  Sure enough, in every scene the Spanish artist had drawn a figure in the background wearing a sombrero and crossed bandoliers, drinking his wine by means of a hook.

Meantime I had become drawn into the pub quiz arena – first in the Irvine Junior Chamber of Commerce, when I became Vice-president and was responsible for booking guest speakers, so got landed with the organiser’s rôle when the BBC asked us to field a team for a quiz hosted by Donny MacLeod, and that led to challenges from the Ayr Police quiz team, among others.  By that time my parents had retired to Sanquhar and my father had been asked to organise a team for a similar event, so he smartly passed the task on to me.  So I came to Glasgow in 1983 with some experience in that line, and ‘The Republic of ASTRA’ quiz team managed quite a respectable showing at Cleopatra’s and the Bon Accord over subsequent years.

As a result of that, I was often asked to join impromptu teams on the new quiz machines, there and in the Ritz Bar at Charing Cross.  But again, it wasn’t a patch on the real thing.  To make a quiz team work, you have to have experts in a variety of fields;  I could make a fist at science, literature, history and other fields that interested me, but soap operas, football and pop music leave me cold, and we could never get enough people round the game machines to make a go of it.

Fig. 9. The Griffith Observatory, Los Angeles, possibly taken from the Hollywood Sign

But I did once find a game machine which fitted my speciality.  While I was in California in 1984, my friends from the Venture Science Association  (see ON August 7th, 2022)  took me to the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles  (Fig. 9), to meet the Director, Dr. Ed Krupp, who had already published two articles of mine in the Griffith Observer.  I wanted to show him the photographs from the aerial archaeology flight  (see above)  and place an article with him about it.  When we got there, Dr. Krupp had been called away, and while we waited and walked around, looking at the exhibits, we came upon an astronomy quiz machine.  Nothing would do with my friends but that I should try it, though I said I didn’t like the things.  After I had answered 50 questions, the machine asked. ‘Are you Carl Sagan? Y/N’.  After 100 answers, it asked, ‘Are you sure you’re not Carl Sagan?’  And after 150, it said, ‘Aw, come on, Carl, stop kidding around’.

Fig. 10. Carl Sagan cartoon, 1985

I met Carl Sagan the following year, when he came to give the annual Gifford Lectures at Glasgow University, later collected in his book The Varieties of Scientific Experience:  A Personal View of the Search for God, edited by Ann Druyan  (Penguin, 2006).  My California friends sent me a relevant cartoon  (Fig. 10), and I thought that ‘for a valuable consideration’ the University projectionist might be persuaded to slip it in at the start of one of lectures.  But for that of course it had to be photographed on slide film, and the film had to be used up and sent for development.  The crucial slide didn’t come back till the lectures were over.  Prof. Sagan had shown a good sense of humour in his talks, and in dealing with questions, so I think he’d have been OK with it.  He and I got on all right, but I couldn’t persuade him to leave the University precinct and come to meet astronomy and space enthusiasts socially, even when Ann Druyan wanted to.  I don’t know if he shared the phobia about Glasgow which some Americans have:  Ben Bova, editor of Analog, and his wife Barbara, were so hung up on the image of No Mean City that they insisted on staying in Edinburgh, even when attending Glasgow conventions.  I suggested that they’d better not go to one in Chicago in case they met Al Capone, but it did no good.  But if we had succeeded in luring Prof. Sagan to a Glasgow hostelry, as we did with Patrick Moore the following year, and Heather Couper the year after that, I’m sure we would have found better ways to pass the time there than by playing the machines.

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2 replies »

  1. Re. “No thanks, I once put 10 pence into one and lost it” – and gambling in general.

    Many years ago – after Uni and before finding ‘a proper job’, I worked on the till in a Bookies. That was an education in the futility of gambling. Yes, some were ‘lucky’, some had ‘a system’ – still, I knew that most of them were working people who were pouring their hard-earned money down the drain.
    While I was working there, there was a Grand National and one of the ‘big nobs’ from Head Office was visiting. He persuaded me to put 50p on a horse. It came a cropper at a fence – and was badly injured. I promised myself to never bet on horses again. And that’s my answer to folk about betting on horses – ‘I put 50p on a horse once, and it fell over.”

    And then there’s this aspect of it….

    I see the recent proliferation of adverts on the telly for gambling, as being a cause for concern.

    Clever way to get folk reading about science though, Duncan! Carl Sagan – one of my heroes….

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