New Documentary: The Fruit Machine

One of the images shown to suspected LGBTQ public servants as part of the so-called ‘fruit machine’ testing during the Cold War. (CBC)

A new documentary by Sarah Fodey, The Fruit Machine, details efforts by the Canadian government to detect homosexuals with a specially constructed device – the fruit machine. Designed by Carleton University psychologist Frank Robert Wade in the early 1960s, the fruit machine continued to be employed into the 1990s.

As described in a recent CBC news article,

… the fruit machine was created as an ostensibly scientific way to detect homosexuals, so they could be fired from their government jobs or pre-screened before being offered employment in the first place. This was during the Cold War, and the prevailing fear was that homosexuals would be at a greater risk of blackmail by Russian spies. They needed to be identified and removed, the thinking went, so they wouldn’t reveal the nation’s secrets. ….

“It was designed in the early 1960s by Frank Robert Wake, a psychology professor with Carleton University,” Fodey explains. “The Canadian government paid to send Dr. Wake to the United States to study detection devices that were used there at the time. After about a year of research, Dr. Wake returned to Canada and used his findings to create the ‘Special Project’ as it was officially known. A sergeant with the RCMP later coined it ‘the fruit machine,’ and the name stuck.”

The machine itself was dismantled long ago, but it “looked like something resembling a dentist chair in front of a camera mounted on a pulley,” says Fodey.

“Men would be subjected to lewd images and photographs would be taken of their pupils in response to the various images,” Fodey says. “The thinking was that if one’s pupils enlarged at the sight of a naked man, this would indicate same sex attraction. It was, in a word, ridiculous.”

The full feature-length documentary can be viewed on the TVO website here.

More information on Wade and the fruit machine can be found in Chapter 5 of Gary Kinsman and Patrizia Gentile’s 2009 book The Canadian War on Queers: National Security as Sexual Regulation.

About Jacy Young

Jacy Young is a professor at Quest University Canada. A critical feminist psychologist and historian of psychology, she is committed to critical pedagogy and public engagement with feminist psychology and the history of the discipline.