A History of Pinball!

For most people, there are just certain things that we love and make up who we are. For  these things that we love, in many instances, there is usually an excellent genesis story. I love and have loved for most of my life video games, computer games, and arcade games. For me, the genesis of my love of these things starts with my grandfather.

Bowling

My paternal grandfather owned and operated a family friendly bowling alley for decades, Pla Mor Bowling Alley in Statesville, NC right up until around the year 2000 which is also around the time that I was starting high school. Even after he sold the lanes and retired, he spent most of his days there, still getting up early and driving each morning  to have his morning coffee with the regular customers at the snack bar.  He loved that place and he loved bowling and as a result, it was the family past time.  Not only was it something him and my grandmother did for years together, but it was passed on to my father and his siblings, who all bowled into their adult lives. My uncle almost even went pro! As a child I spent many hours at the bowling alley, and for years was a member of a Saturday morning youth league. The lanes were located a county over from where I grew up, so each Saturday, my mom would pile my sister and I into the car and we'd listen to the American Top 40 with Kasey Kasem the whole way there. (Is Kasey Kasem the man or what?) We'd split a thing of nachos, hang out with our friends, and in between turns, we'd beg for quarters to hit up the arcade. I got pretty great at Ms. Pacman through the years, and adored the old pinball machines, though I never quite mastered them. It was quintessential Americana and a great way to grow up.  As an adult, my love of  bowling, the American Top 40, and arcade and video games all remain. Sadly, so has my love of nachos. But I'm cutting back now any day, Scout's Honor!

What I didn't realize at the time was just what a storied and rich history the American arcade actually had, pinball machines in particular.

The More You Know...

Like the old NBC commercials from the 90's stated,  The More You Know....

As an storage unit buyer, it's important to have knowledge on as many niches as possible, because you never know exactly what you'll find in your next unit.

To get the highest return on your investment, you have to know in general, what the best dollar amount to start negotiations at so that buyers know you're a serious seller, and you don't end up getting the short end of the stick. And you can only know what dollar amount to start with by having knowledge on the history of the item, or the market in general.  It's like my new hero, Ton, from Auction Hunters states so eloquently, "The better the history, the higher the price."

With that in mind, I've scoured the internet to bring you information on the history of arcade games, in particular, pinball machines.

15-19th Century Historical Roots

That's right, who knew, pinball has historical roots all the way back to the 15th Century. To understand the American history of these machines and games, you first have to know how they originated.  Ironically enough, pinball originated as a table top game that took its cues from games like bowling and bocce.

In 1777 the French King Louis XVI introduced a game called Bagatelle to the French nobility at a hip and happening party thrown at Chateau d'Bagatelle outside of Paris. The game took its name from the estate. The estate was owned by the King's brother, Compte d'Artois. Soon, Bagatelle was sweeping the nation, or at least, the homes of French aristocrats.

The early games sat on table tops and lacked automation. Due to this fact, the French aristocrats quickly grew tired of having to reset pins and soon alterations began to the game. The pins became permanent fixtures attached to these boards, with targets surrounding the pins that counted as points. These pins later gave the game its more permanent name, pinball.

With this new version of the game, participants took turns shooting a miniature pool stick to propel a ball through a channel or shooter lane, and points were then scored when the ball landed in scoring pockets below the actual board.

Eventually, during the American Revolutionary War, Bagatelle was introduced to the brave new world of America and quickly caught on as a popular past time.

Let's jump ahead a bit. In 1870, a British immigrant to America, Montague Redrave of Columbus, Ohio received patent No. 115,357 on May 30, 1870. The patent would forever change how the game was played by introducing the spring loaded plunger and the incorporation of bells onto the board, which the balls (or marbles at the time) would hit as they fell.

Show Me The Money

The best things in life are free, that is until they are eventually monetized. Darn the man! Bagatelle was no different and suffered the same fate when the coin operated industry began in 1889 when Louis Glass and William S. Arnold invented the five cent coin mechanism and began attaching this new fangled contraption to an Edison cylinder phonograph. This mechanism quickly became standard fare on bagatelles.

This took the game from a home parlor/entertainment game and turned it into a popular gambling device in public bars and pool halls.  Some changes to the game were necessary to account for this new life cycle of the game. For one, glass had to be placed over the playing field to allow the games to sit out in the open and be played at the customers' leisure, while prevent cheating. Later, pay out devices would be added to the games as well.

Early Game Updates and History

Automatic Industries rolled out the first coin operated pinball machine in 1931 with a machine they titled the Whiffle Board, and soon after David Gottlieb introduced the world to his game, dubbed, Baffle Ball. Raymond Maloney, a Gottlieb distributor wanted in on the action as well when he was frustrated with not being able to get enough of the Baffle Ball Machines. (The Baffle Ball Machines retailed for $17.50 and sold over 50,000 units.) Maloney formed Lyon Manufacturing and named his design on the game, Ballyhoo. The Ballyhoo version of the game sold over 75,000 units and sold for around the same price as the Baffle Ball machines. Maloney eventually re-named his company Bally Manufacturing.

In 1932 the bagatelle got a major upgrade in the form of legs, taking it from a table top device, to a stand alone unit. The objects of the game remained the same, but now, the table was waist high, allowing players to nudge the machine to change the ball's trajectory. (Being such a shrimpy kid, I never did master the art of tilting.)

In 1933, The Rockola Company began producing machines which mechanically nudged the marbles or balls themselves. Such titles as World's Series and Jigsaw included this feature.

history of pinball

Eureka!

There were two centers of operations for early pinball manufacturing and distribution. The first was the city of Chicago, where the majority of early games were manufactured and created, and California, where many designs and technological advances hailed from.

In 1933, a fella by the name of Harry Williams, living in Los Angeles, used a battery-powered electric solenoid kicker to a game. He teamed up with Fred McClellan, of Pacific Amusement Company, and introduced their game titled Contact. The men introduced their new innovation  at the 1934 Chicago Coin Machine Convention.  Around 27,000 units of Contact were produced.

pinball

In the following years, pinball machines became regularly manufactured with ball kickers such as the one on Williams machine, as well as lights on the playing field, and electric bells, making the games exciting and attention drawing.

More revolutionary improvements to the game were introduced in 1936 when the bumper and electric scoring were added to games produced by Bally Manufacturing company. (Let's just be honest, the bumpers and the lights are the best part of the game!)

The bumpers completely changed the game. Previously, scores were manually added up as the balls fell into specific holes within the board. Bumpers changed all that. Each bumper was awarded a specific point value and as the ball bounced from bumper to bumper, they light up like Christmas and automatically triggered a switch in the back end machinery that totaled these points each time a bumper was tapped. Not only did this change the game play, but the overall aesthetic of playing and added entertainment value as the ball ricocheted around the board.

To counteract pesky cheaters using tilt to change the ball's trajectory and enhance their scores, mechanisms were created within the back end machinery to end game play when the machines were titled.

It wasn't long before another ground breaking change was made to the game. In 1947, D. Gottlieb & Co's game titled Humpty Dumpty introduced flipper mechanisms into the game play. (Early predecessors used a bat in baseball themed machines to pitch the ball across the playing field.)

The Humpty Dumpty sported a whopping six flippers! The machine, invented by Harry Mabs, was the first to allow game players the ability to keep the ball in play, making the game much more skill based as opposed to being strictly a game of chance.  (I'll say! How would one even control six flippers at once. Makes me tired just thinking about it.)

In 1948, Steve Kordek was tasked with creating a game for Genco titled Triple Action. His budget only allowed for him to include two electrically powered flippers and he placed these at the base of the game, what we know today as the classic positioning for these pieces. (Whew. Thank  Goodness for Innovation!)

Stay tuned for our next installment on classic arcade games. Now that we've worked our way up to through the history of the creation of the game of pinball as we know it today, we'll talk about its place in history and the story of how it came to be illegal in the United States before once again becoming a beloved childhood toy.

Back to Blog
Leave a reply