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Penny Arcade: How a 1950s Hip Infection in Leeds Created a 2009 Flu Epidemic in the United States

By Tom Anderson

In this series of ‘Consequences in AH’ articles, we’ve already seen how an innovative word seen as cheap and tawdry at the turn of the twentieth century—the Nickelodeon—was reborn and took on a new life towards its end. This tale of consequences is similar in some ways, in that it involves a name that was adopted between 1905 and 1910 to describe the coin-operated amusement arcades of the time, with mechanical machines such as bagatelle and pinball. Because of their low price, these entertainment centres—often located at resorts frequented by working-class people on their holidays—were dubbed ‘Penny Arcades’.

Much like ‘Nickelodeon’, the term gradually declined after its heyday, but saw occasional revivals. One of these in particular would come to shift the course of history, in particular the history of the entertainments that succeeded the mechanical machines of the Edwardian era: the videogames.

Sammy King was born in Batley near Leeds in 1942. Like many young northern lads both then and now, he had ambitions to be a professional footballer. However, as a teenager he suffered from a serious hip infection, and spent two years in hospital before recovering. But his footballing days were over. Instead, he turned to his second love: music. He bought a drum kit and started playing with his brother and their friends in local groups in pubs and clubs. He never became a big name as a musician in his own right, but on the circuit worked with many who did: Cilla Black, Cliff Richard, Gene Pitney—the last of whom was a good friend of Sammy’s and encouraged him to release solo records. He shared a bill with legendary groups and individuals like The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Louis Armstrong and Shirley Bassey. But as well as being a musician himself, he was a songwriter.

In 1969, on a holiday in North Wales, King witnessed a glorious sunset and was inspired to write the first line of a song:

A light, shone in the night, some way ahead…

But the natural light of the sun swiftly became an artificial one:

Blue turned into green, then it was red…

Answering the light, the music played…

The light I saw in the night was a penny arcade!

The song was a cheerful novelty number celebrating the experience of the old penny arcades in a gloriously exaggerated way. It was just what Roy Orbison needed. Known for his dark spectacles, unique voice and sadly tragic life (his wife had died in a car crash in 1964 and that was not the first or last of his personal tragedies), Orbison’s career was flagging by 1969. More used to sad and emotional numbers, “Penny Arcade” seemed a peculiar choice, but it did the trick. Orbison purchased the song (King later denied a rumour he had been ‘swindled’ out of it for an unfair purchase price) and, though it only made it to number 20 in King’s native UK, it beat the Beatles and Rolling Stones in Australia and became a popular novelty tune for years and decades to come.

Now fast forward to 1998, nine years after Orbison’s untimely death and his posthumous hit single “You Got It”. The internet was swiftly transitioning from a novelty to an everyday part of life, and one purpose it was put to was by artists creating ‘webcomics’. This rapid growth area was argued by Scott McCloud in his 2000 book Reinventing Comics to represent a great opportunity, as a webpage was not an artificially limited canvas like a page. Webcomics achieved great popularity in the late 90s and early 2000s, but McCloud’s thesis was not the primary reason: rather, it was because it was possible to ‘binge the archive’ in a way that was difficult with physical comics, freeing artists and writers to create long-running storylines with heavier continuity than had previously been the norm. However, not all webcomics needed epic storylines, others relying on the old American newspaper ‘gag-a-day’ format, and still others being based on topical issues and events. Naturally, many webcomic artists chose topics that were of great interest to the demographics who were early adopters on the internet, and perhaps the most obvious of these was video gamers. There were and are many, many gaming webcomics, but the best-known (and most-copied) was created by Mike Krahulik and Jerry Holkins in that year of 1998. The name they chose for their comic? Penny Arcade.

On the face of it the name is a neat nod to the ultimate origins of videogames, those arcades of the 1900s. However, it seems very likely that what kept the name alive enough for Krahulik and Holkins to be aware of it was the King-Orbison song, and indeed Orbison gets a reference in the game spinoff Krahulik and Holkins made in the 2000s, Penny Arcade Adventures: On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness.

Penny Arcade became a huge phenomenon and today has lent its name to far more than the original webcomic. As well as founding the videogame-based charity Child’s Play, Krahulik and Holkins founded the Penny Arcade Expo (PAX) in 2004. What began as a small local operation in their home state of Washington, with about 3,300 attendees, rapidly escalated through near-exponential growth, with multiple sites throughout the United States and Australia and attendances of over 70,000. Indeed it went on to displace existing technology conventions like E3 and became the top venue for videogame companies to show off their upcoming hardware.

Naturally, with gamers from across North America and the world flocking to the various PAX conventions, it was only a matter of time before this led to a disease exchange. In 2009 an outbreak of the H1N1 flu virus (a variant of which had caused the devastating Spanish Flu of 1919) affected at least 100 convention-goers and spread back to their home towns when they returned home. Since then different but similar diseases have tended to recur as a result of the vast conventions, leading to the joke that convention-goers are suffering from the so-called “PAX Pox”. Which, incidentally, has done a lot to re-establish the formerly relatively obscure and old-fashioned word ‘pox’ for disease among a new generation.

Of course, Krahulik and Holkins’ webcomic might have become successful even without its catchy name (which they almost lost the rights to due to a dispute early on). But it is still instructive to consider that without a Leodensian teenager’s hip infection in the 1950s, there would have been no song for Roy Orbison to sing, no maintenance of the name Penny Arcade in everyday usage, no hugely influential gaming webcomic, no PAX and therefore no PAX Pox. Besides that rather negative kind of exchange, of course, the PAXes have also played host to cross-pollination between game creators and others in the industry, and some of the most popular Let’s Play channels on Youtube and Twitch have come about as a consequence of such meetings.

All because of a Batley lad’s hip infection



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