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INVENTION AND DEVELOPMENT OF THE TOTALISATOR
From time immemorial racing and betting have been a way of life for a large proportion of the world's peoples. When they built the pyramids maybe the gang bosses held a lottery on the day's progress. Cock-fighting in Eastern countries generated a betting mania, and still does. The charioteer raced for the prize, and his lady's favour, but I guess he had a few drachmas on the side with his rivals. The Eskimo bet on the size of the fish he'd pull out of the ice-hole; and "having a little on the dogs" is a favourite pastime in many countries.
In New Zealand early in 1840 the military garrison at Auckland held the first race meeting. Wellington was next in 1841, celebrating the founding of the settlement with theirs. Each succeeding province had a meeting at it's first festival: Canterbury's was held in 1851. That was still the era of colourful bookmakers who had been calling their odds for nearly 200 years.
But betting on horse racing in this century has had more impact on a larger number of people the world over than any betting ever before. It is all due to that machine called a "totalisator" which the Concise Oxford Dictionary describes as "a device showing numbers and amount of bets staked on a race with a view to dividing the total among bettors on the winner." It sounds so simple.
As I stood watching the complicated machinery of the modern totalisator it seemed a far cry from one I had seen in the Museum of Transport and Technology in Auckland. I wanted to find the story of the origin of that one, and of the years between it and the infernal machine that takes my dollars now and sometimes gives me back a few.
The story unfolded as I searched files and publications, and plucked the brains of knowledgeable men. They took me to see the bowels of the robot, and my brain reeled at the intricacy of it all. One of the steel cases housed enormous ropes of electrical wiring - the nerve centre servicing the ticket machines and the aggregating machines and whatever. It seemed a vulnerable spot. They told me it was continuously inspected; even a mouse could cause an error of $1000. Rows of electric batteries can take over if the national grid fails; and a diesel plant stands by.
It became a fascinating study, and I was filled with admiration for the two New Zealanders who built on a Frenchman's system, and was responsible for the wonderful device we have today to bring us wealth or woe if we are susceptible to its charms. Mr Oller was a Parisian businessman, and as a side-line to his selling of toilet articles he conducted lotteries and a bookmaking business. On the latter he consistently lost money. At last he devised a system which would allow people to bet among themselves, and give the winner a part of all the money bet, in proportion to the individual wager. I had wondered what the "Pari-mutuel" was. This is it. "Parier" means to wager, and "mutuel" is between ourselves.
So, in 1872 Mr Oller in an office in Paris prepared many stacks of tickets, sold them and used his system for race meetings near the city. It was in demand, and he extended it by sending carriages and an army of clerks and accountants to sell pari-mutuel tickets on the courses themselves; in Belguim and England as well as in France. His commission was between 10 and 20%, and his profit enormous with the popularity of the betting system. It was completely honest; he was an honest man, which was not always the case with some bookmakers. New gambling laws put him out of business for some years; but by 1890 he was in business again though paying a government tax. His division of the pool money has altered little since then.
Queer-looking betting contrivances were used on race tracks before this, and the "marble" machine was used in Australia. When a ticket seller issued a ticket he dropped a marble into a chute for that selected horse. It rolled down to a counting place at the end of the buildings, and the dividend was arrived at by the number of marbles at the end of the winners chute. This simple system failed when few marbles got past a dead, undiscovered rodent body halfway along the chute.
Then a New Zealander named Ekberg became interested in Oller's pari-mutuel betting, and produced a hand operated machine which would speed up the procedure of selling tickets and recording bets. He called it a totalisator, and it was first used in 1880 at a race meeting of the Canterbury Jockey Club and in the same year at Auckland's Ellerslie race course.
Though still crude, other improved machines followed, but all were manually operated, and subject to fraudulent manipulation, and without any governmental restriction in their use. Then early in this century came the great revolution in racing circles. George Julius, the son of the Bishop of Chrischurch and Primate of New Zealand (himself no mean artificer) began his professional career as assistant engineer to the West Australian Railways Department. He had graduated from the Engineering School of Canterbury College in 1896.
He became chief draughtsman and engineer in charge of tests; all tests I presumed, for his report on "The Physical Characteristics of Australian Hardwood" (it would be used for sleepers) is still a standard work of reference. He married the daughter of the engineer in chief of West Australia: wise man, she would be brought up speaking the same language. Her christian names, I thought strange and beautiful: Droughsia Odierna, though she had Eva for an everyday one.
About that time irregular voting was suspected in the Australian elections, and Julius invented a foolproof vote-counting machine for the Government. It was rejected however, but he was not dismayed and decided it could be adapted as a totalisator. The family moved to Sydney in 1907, and in his garden workshop, it took him five years to perfect an automatic totalisator which would make racecourse wagering safe and accurate.
By 1912 it was finished, and George Julius was a triumphant man when the managers of Ellerslie racecourse agreed to buy and install his invention. He wished it to be called the "Premier" and he, himself supervised the erection of every section, and the screwing of every nut and bolt.
On a Staurday in June, 1913, the first automatic totalisator in the world came into operation and was a colossal success. For the first time the horse racing public saw a machine that automatically and instantaneously recorded and showed the number of tickets sold on each horse, and the aggregate number of tickets sold right throughout the progress of the betting.
Julius saw a world market for his Premier; so back in Sydney he set up a proper workshop and went into business. In spite of the great cost all of the leading courses in Australia brought his totalisators, New Zealand showing the way. He and his leading technicians went overseas to promote them, and he installed them on courses in England, France and India, beginning what was to be a great international enterprise.
It seems strange that a man with no interest in racing should have given this thing to the racing world. But his totalisator was his sideline, for as a consulting engineer he began the firm of Julius, Poole and Gibson, and was the senior partner until his death in 1946. His numerous contributions to science, his professoinal and administrative genius and his chairmanship of the mighty Council of Scientific and Industrial Research from its inception, were recognised in 1929 when he was created a Knight Bachelor.
As markets grew the totalisator was manufactured by a company calling itself Automatic Totalisators, and improvements were continually added to it. In 1932 Julius, a director of the company, added an automatic odds-computing device; and by a system of electrical impulses the modern ticket machine prints an transmits the amount of the investment as it is made, to the adding mechanism, and simultaneously issues a ticket. The company still produces the greater part of betting equipment for the world's race tracks, whether it be for galloping or trotting or dog racing. In New Zealand the law prevents totalisator betting on dog racing; but the Auckland Greyhound Racing Club has recently requested he Internal Affairs Department and the New Zealand Racing Authority to grant it a permit for its spring meeting this year.
Each installation is custom built to suit each particular set of problems and situations. When the company receives an order, an army of experts, acting on replies to a dozen questions sets to work on a study involving design, architecture, mechanical and electrical engineering and whatever, before submitting the plan to the client. All equipment is built as a series of small units and tested and packed as they are finished then shipped to their destination. Experts arrive by air and install them on the racecourse whereever it may be. The factory can never show a finished article. They will tell you "there's no use looking here for anything. You should go and see the new one we've just installed in Caracus in Venezuela." Or it may be Longchamps in France, of Sweded or Brazil.
The engineers say they have the best job in the world: a pleasant trip to a faraway place with a happy round of racing thrown in. For when you visit a race track in any part of the world the chances are that you will place your bets on a Julius Premier Totalisator. Other big manufacturing companies operate throughout the world, but are smaller. Through one of them, the English Bell Punch and Printing Company, another name came into the picture. Henry Strauss, an American, improved on the Julius machine by applying the principle of the automatic dial telephone to further speed up the operation and cope with any betting load placed on it. The New Zealand branch of that company was joined with Automatic Totalisators in 1964 and the enlarged firm manufactures most of the macines here and in Australia.
The first Tote-mobile, a small totalisator mounted in a caravan-trailer, was in use after the war. This proved of great value to clubs that could not afford the more costly equipment. It is a familiar picture on our nice country race tracks. From that time on improvements to installations came thick and fast, until now totalisators are in the electronic computer age, and betting on the totalisator is big business. Even at an ordinary Addington race day close to $750,000 pass through the totalisator om combined on and off course betting, and 80% of that is from the dollar punter.
In New Zealand, churches and bookmakers opposed the totalisators for entirely opposite reasons, and a bill to abolish them passed the second reading in Parliament, but not the third. And in 1910, by an amendment to the Gaming Act, bookmakers were excluded from racecourses, and the totalisator became the only legal means of betting in New Zealand. Today the Totalisator Agency Board is the only legal off-course betting; the electonic computer equipment is being considered for its offices. In 1918 the first inspector of totalisators was appointed by the Government, with provision for the position to be a permanent one.
Racecourse management the world over, to have a profitable business, is always concerned with the number of patrons it could attract to, and keep at the course, and various innovations are used to freshen up popularity. For years dividends were paid only on a win, then win and place equipment was installed. Then the doubles and quinella systems were introduced.
In America the doubles originally operated on the first race of the programme to get patrons on the course early; the quinella was for the last race, so holding patrons as long as possible, with consequent length of betting time. These purposes have long since outlived their usefulness.
I wondered how the name ("quinella") came into racing, and they told me it originated in Mexico after the conquest by the Spaniards in the sixteenth century, when they adopted an Indian court game. To establish the champion in their "Jai-Alia," a game similar to squash but with woven baskets instead of rackets, six of the best players entered a contest, by lot each player being numbered one to six. The loser of the first two contestants is replaced by number three, and this sequence continues until five winning points are established. The same applies to produce four winning points.
As betting on horse racing developed in Mexico patrons demanded that they should be able to bet on the first two horses past the post as with Jai-Alai players. Now this betting system operates on the modern totalisator, investments are fed into a punched tape recorder and read by an electronic instrument.
Stil more sophisticated machines will no doubt appear for a more sophisticated form of betting but the four men Oller, Ekberg, Julius and Strauss are, with their experts responsible for the development of so many devices to improve the operation of pari-mutuel betting, that their names will never be forgotten. And racing men to say that pari-mutuel betting removed the crooked race track bookmaker and that the totalisator made pari-mutuel betting honest.
But in spite of it all, the calculators (and they are human) with great rapidity (one of them could add four columns simultaneously), still have to work out the dividend. So when you receive your payout give a thought to the human brain that as yet must take an active part in this end result of its genius, the totalisator.
Credit: Phyllis Kerr