State Fair Skill Cranes

Photo courtesy

By Mike Johnson

The 1970s state fair skill cranes held the good stuff.
Cigarette lighters. Pocket watches. Silver dollars.

But these good prizes were littered within piles of cheap trinkets.
Key chains. Chinese handcuffs. Plastic animals.

The metal, steam shovel skill cranes cost a quarter, which was big money.
They operated at eye level in a two-foot by two-foot glass box.
Arranged in a rectangle, there were about 30 stations surrounding the outer edge of the midway trailer.
One carnie paced the elevated central inner ring, monitoring players.
All 30 games stayed busy.

You controlled the crank that moved the claw but not where it stopped.
Once it stopped, your crank automatically started lowering the claw, which started closing when it hit bottom.

It was unlikely the claw would stop directly over a good prize, so the strategy was to turn the crank hard until it abruptly stopped advancing.
This created a big swing in the chained claw.
If the claw wasnt over a good prize, you could use the swing to increase your options.

By cranking fast, you could launch the claw left or right toward a better prize.
But the claw would land hard, without precision, making it unlikely to grip under two sides of the prize.
Without a firm, balanced, underneath grip, the prize would slip away when the claw was slowly lifted.

So the cranes were 75% luck and 25% skill.

Designed by carnies with bigger brains than 13-year-olds, the cranes clawed far more quarters from us than we clawed prizes from them.

When a prize slid away, wed get even by cranking really fast to make the metal claw slam against the glass upon its return.

We never broke any glass but the noise got a rise out of the attendant.
Fortunately, other crane-addict kids knew this frustration releaser too.
So it was hard for the attendent to identify individual slammers.

When we heard that noise, we knew some other kid had watched his prize slip away too.

It was an early life lesson.

Situations that tease valuables, risk big money and grant limited control, are not high probability ventures.

That lesson, along with the memories of those 25-cent crane capers, turned our losses into good investments.


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