Arcade games remain a popular activity for youths as well as young adults. Even older adults are known to enjoy playing arcade games. One game has endured decades of competition—the pinball machine.
The Precursors to Pinball Machines
Pinball machines got their humble beginnings from outdoor bowling and bocce ball games. Eventually these outdoor games moved indoors and became the game of billiards. In 1777 at a party for King Luis XIV of France, the ancestor of the pinball machine was introduced. The new game was called bagatelle.
BagateCredit: in the public domain; upload to Wikimedia Commons by Wuseliglle was a slenderized version of the billiard table, had an incline and fixed pins and holes in it. The object was to use a smaller version of the pool cue to shoot balls into the pins, much like bowling. However, it took much too long to reset the pins so they were attached to the table. The new object of the game was to shoot the balls into the holes and the players used the pins to ricochet the balls into the holes. During the Revolutionary War, French soldiers introduced the game to Americans and the game grew widely popular.
In 1870, Montague Redgrave, a British inventor and immigrant to the United States, patented the first plunger for the bagatelle game. However, the early versions didn’t allow the player to see the tip of the plunger to determine distance from the ball. Around this time, bells were also added to the game.
The Evolution of the Pinball Machine
The next invention of importance in the progress of the pinball machine was the addition of a coin mechanism. In 1889 Louis Glass and William S. Arnold invented a mechanism to fit on Edison’s phonograph and effectively introduced the first jukebox. Soon after, the coin mechanism was attached to the bagatelle and it became a popular gambling machine in the pool halls and saloons. With the addition of the coin mechanism and later an automatic pay out device, the games were kept on display to allow the customers to play when they wanted. A glass top was added to prevent cheating.
In 1931 the first coin operated pinball machine was marketed. David Gottlieb introduced the Baffle Ball and sold the game for $17.50. Players got five to seven balls for a penny and most taverns and drugstores across America had them. The game was so popular, by 1932 seller Ray Moloney was having difficulties acquiring more machines to sell. Frustrated, he developed his own design for a machine he called the Ballyhoo. The Ballyhoo was more challenging, giving the player a larger playing field and ten pockets. The Ballyhoo was a huge success.
These table top games grew legs in 1932. This gave the player the advantage of bumping or shaking the game to change the ball’s trajectory. Harry Williams invented the tilt mechanism to prevent this type of cheating and further enhance the gaming pleasure. With the invention of electricity, the pinball advanced still further. In 1933 Williams developed a battery-powered solenoid to propel the ball out of hole in the middle of the playing field of the machine. He teamed with Fred McClellan of the Pacific Amusements company in Los Angeles and the two introduced the game Contact. Soon after, other companies added this feature to their games as well as introducing electric lights and bells which attracted even more players.
In 1936 The Bally Company introduced the bumpers into the pinball machines. Coiled springs provided the balls with the ability to rapidly bounce around the playing field. In addition, the company added an electric switch to the bumper springs which were attached to an electric scoring circuitry that projected the score onto a glass at the back. Each time the ball hit the coils, it triggered the switch.
Player-controlled flippers were added to pinball machines in 1947 with the introduction of D. Gottlieb & Co.’s Humpty Dumpty. However, the flippers did not have much power and the game required three sets to be placed around the playing field to propel the ball to the top of the game. The first game to introduce two flippers was the Triple Action. The flippers, designed by Steve Kordek, were placed at the bottom and faced outwards, but had more power to propel the balls. Credit: Photo by Richfife
After WW II, the industry was dominated by Gottlieb & Co. In 1950 the company made the first inward-facing flippers on its machine Spot Bowler. In 1962 Vagabond was introduced with the first drop target and in 1963 Beat the Clock brought the first mulitball feature.
It was also during the 1940s and into the 1970s pinball machines were banned in many of the larger cities. It was believed the machines were games of chance rather than skill and thus were a form of gambling. Ads touted the horror and corruption pinball brought to youth. Mayor of New York, Fiorello La Guardia, claimed the machines took hard earned nickels and dimes from the pockets of children. He instigated raids on establishments with pinball machines, much like raids during prohibition, and joined in the destruction of the machines, beating them with a sledgehammer and throwing the ruins in the river. Because of the illegality of the machines, they began to be used as a symbol for rebellion. In 1974 the ban was lifted in Los Angeles by the Supreme Court of California; and in 1976 the ban was finally lifted in New York City.
Pinball Machines Move into the Digital Age
The pinball machine thrived into the 1970s and incorporated technological advances to produce machines with computer circuitry. Enhanced sound effects and lighting produced by computers made the games even more enticing. However, with the computer technology advancing, it was inevitable the popularity of the classic games would decline. In the 1980s the appearance of video games began to replace the old arcade games.
In attempts to keep up with the changing technology, companies added features such as blinking chase lights, ramps and black holes to attract players. In the 1990s the pinball machine started featuring more elaborate designs of their playing fields. Popular movies and events were licensed to entice players further.
While few new pinball machines with designs along the lines of the classic games are being manufactured; new digital versions of the classic games are periodically introduced. Pinball games for computer play are easily acquired. Still, nothing beats the thrill of standing in front of a lights flashing playing field, placing hands on the flippers, pulling that plunger to start the first ball spinning and testing skills on a vintage pinball machine.
- popularmechanics.com. Seth Porges. 11 Things you didn’t know about pinball history. http://www.popularmechanics.com/technology/gadgets/toys/4328211-new#slide-1
The copyright of the article “The History of the Pinball Machine” is owned by Cheryl Weldon and permission to republish in print or online must be granted by the author in writing.