Originally published in Skill Shot issues 1 – 5

by Gordon Gordon

Part one

It can be safely assumed that as long as there has been modern man there have been games. Rocks and sticks, bats and balls, dirt, cards, whatever; human’s like to play and have ample imagination to make things up if and when there’s a desire. Sometime around the 18th Century the idea of hitting a ball with a stick on a table became popular with Europeans and evolved into (at least) two different parlor games: Billiards and Bagatelle.

The main similarity between Billiards and Bagatelle was hitting (shooting) a ball with a (cue) stick. But unlike Billiards, Bagatelle has a play field that is slightly inclined and instead of having pockets on the side of the table, the scoring holes on a Bagatelle can be anywhere. Despite the table incline, the biggest difference between the two games is the placement of “pins” around the table on the Bagatelle. These pins had a dual purpose of deflecting the ball about the table and also for knocking the ball into (or away) from the score holes.

While billiard tables have stayed much the same over the years, Bagatelle tables have always had innumerable varieties. Scoring holes and pin placement was totally up to who ever created each individual game. The first major innovation to the game happened in the 1800’s when the cue stick was replaced with a coiled spring and a plunger. This made the game a little easier to play and helped direct the size of the games to smaller versions that could fit on the top of a bar or counter.

The next step on the road to modern pinball games happened in another area of American ingenuity: The Penny Arcade. At the turn of the century (1900’s) coin operated amusements were invented and became all the rage. Fortune Teller machines; simple movie projectors; Test of Strength and the like amused and delighted the masses. Arcades were springing up everywhere and countless new novelties and machines were needed for these businesses including one of the earliest flipperless pin-like games called Log Cabin. In Log Cabin the player would shoot the ball to the top of the game, hopefully landing the ball in one of the numbered scoring slots. Getting the ball in a numbered slot would win the player different amounts of cigars depending on the score.

While Log Cabin was a popular game, it wasn’t until 1931 that the first pin games truly appeared. Ballyhoo by the soon to be named Bally Company and Gottlieb’s Baffle Ball both came out that year and both game s were extremely popular. By placing the game under glass and feeding the plunger 7 to 10 balls per game, for a penny or a nickel the games started making their owners a nice bit a cash, all for a reasonable investment of less than 20 dollars. Flippers hadn’t been invented yet and you had to add up your own score, but for only a coin these two games were fun to play and started the pin-game craze.

Part Two

The mid-1930’s was a time of many innovations to the game we now know as pinball. As mentioned last issue the introduction of Baffle Ball and Ballyhoo brought widespread popularity as the games (which cost less than $20) spread across America. These games were not very large and easily fit on public counter tops and bars and at a penny a game gave people a cheap diversion during the depression years. One of the many things that make these games a curiosity today is that they were non-electrical and had none of the features that contemporary players are familiar with such as flippers, bumpers or even automatic scoring!

Before electricity pinball games were simple affairs similar to a gum ball machine; you put a penny into the slot and received a set number of balls, then shot the balls one at a time (with a spring launched plunger) up into the play field hopefully landing into a scoring hole. Since there were no flippers or bumpers, gravity was the main motor of these early games and either luck or a “slight” nudging was the only way to get the balls into the higher scoring positions. The addition of a battery to the pin-games brought then exciting features such as lights, bells and in 1935, perhaps the most annoying aspect of all modern pinball games: the tilt mechanism.

Up until the invention of the “tilt” players could jostle, lift and move the game as much as they wanted with no penalty unless the owner of the game happened to notice. Since many of the early games awarded prizes for high scores (like current redemption games) there was plenty of incentive to manipulate the machine as much as possible. But at the same time, since gravity was the main force moving the ball a certain nudging of the game was to be expected, just not too much. Around the same time automatic scoring also made its debut. Early scoring was done basically by illuminating numbers on the back glass as certain shots were made. Soon after the batteries were introduced to pinball games someone came up with the idea of adding an transformer to the machines and games were then able to be plugged into any electric outlet. This gave the games the added boost of power that led to the next big addition: electric bumpers.

With the addition of electric bumpers gravity no longer was the main propulsion of the balls, since the bumpers could bounce the balls in any and all directions. The Bally Company’s “Bumper” pinball machines (1937) were the first games to have these electric bumpers, but other companies soon added this important feature as well. Automatic scoring became connected to both the bumpers and the scoring holes, although the “holes” were soon eliminated because they stopped the movement of the balls.

Pinball games became all the rage at this time and hundreds of different games were soon being produced and enjoyed around the country and the world. So many different pinball machines were produced in the late 30’s- and 40’s that collectors are still discovering forgotten games to this day. But while the electric bumpers added movement and excitement to pinball there was still one important feature left to be invented: flippers!

Part Three

By the late 1930’s, there were hundreds of pinball machines being produced and the popularity of pinball was reaching an all-time high. The addition of electricity to pinball games added features that we currently take for granted, like automatic scoring, lights, sounds, and electric bumpers which made the games more fun to play than ever before. Pinball was an inexpensive way for people to entertain themselves and the games were available in a variety of places, such as drug stores and restaurants.

At the same time, gambling machines were also benefiting from the addition of electricity, and as these devices spread throughout the country, local governments began creating laws to restrict them. Many of the gambling machines at this time resembled pinball games, with the most popular and well known ones being the Bingo games. Bingo machines worked in much the same way as early pinball did, with the player shooting a ball to the top of the play field and into a scoring hole that resembled a giant bingo card. Since it was sometimes difficult to tell a gambling machine from a pinball machine, some local governments began to ban both types of games. The most extreme instance of this was in 1942, when the city of New York banned and then destroyed thousands of machines as part of a political publicity stunt.

During this same period, World War 2 was happening and most of the manufacturing companies in the U.S. were being diverted to war-time production. While new machines were not being produced, some companies were refurbishing old games and giving them patriotic themes. Despite the new laws and the interruption in production caused by the war, the makers of real pinball machines were ready with new games and designs once WW2 ended. While pinball flourished in the post war years, one thing was still missing that modern players would have noticed right away: flippers!

The first pinball machine with flippers was Humpty Dumpty, created by the Gottlieb Company in 1947. On this early game, they were called “flipper bumpers” and there were three sets of them running up the middle of the game and pointing outward (instead of pointing inward like modern pinball flippers do). Now, instead of relying on gravity and the mostly random bouncing of the electric bumpers, players could hit the ball with the flippers to keep the ball in play as long as possible. This important innovation gave the player more control of the game and made pinball more of a game of skill than ever before, further distancing itself from the gambling machines. Naturally, other manufacturers added flippers to their games, and that spelled the end of the flipper-less pinball era.

During the two decades that followed, other features that we take for granted today made their debuts, such as multiple player games, add-a-ball, multi-ball, and automatic ball return. Although these innovations, along with fantastic artwork, kept the games new and exciting throughout the sixties, it wasn’t until the 1970’s that the next big evolution happened in pinball.

Part Four

After the invention of flippers during the late 1940’s, other features that players of pinball would recognize began to be introduced during the decades that followed. Sling shot bumpers (1951), multiple players (’53), multi-ball (’56), extra ball (’60), drop targets (’62), spinners (’63), “mushroom” bumpers (’64), and the modern 3″ flippers (’68) were all created during this time. While various manufacturers introduced these features, it wasn’t long before they all included them, even if they called them by different names for copyright reasons (for example, “multi-ball” wasn’t called that on all games).

Despite these new gimmicks, pinball machines didn’t really change much due to their electro-mechanical (EM) nature, which gave them lots of wires, relays, solenoids, and moving parts (such as the scoring wheel). Pinball machines still had to attract players with their imaginative art work and the various buzzers and bells that are associated with the games of this period. Many people consider these EM machines to be part of the golden age of pinball, even though they may seem slow and clunky by today’s standards. But all of that was about to change with the introduction of computers and transistors to pinball, A.K.A. Solid State.

The first solid state (SS) pinball machine was a game called Spirit of ’76, released in 1975 by Micro Games. Although not many of these games were sold due to the unattractive playfield, other companies began to produce their own solid state machines (sometimes creating two versions of the same game, one EM and one SS). The new games were much easier to work on because they had less moving parts, and they also made it possible for pinball to include new features such as sound effects, music, and electronic scoring. In 1979, the first talking pinball machine was introduced (Gogar), and this was soon followed by other features such as multi-level play fields (1980’s Black Knight). These features rekindled interest in pinball, but the computer/game revolution almost ended that interest with the sudden popularity of video games.

As video games crowded out pinball in the bars and the newly established arcades, most companies soon began producing their own video games (and very few new pins). Things were looking bleak for pinball, as more companies left the pinball business and the ones that stayed were increasingly being consolidated into larger (sometimes non-pinball related) corporations. Fortunately, at around the same time the video craze crashed in the early 90’s, the most popular pinball machine of the modern era was released: The Addams Family.

Selling over 22,000 units, Bally’s The Addams Family was based on the popular movie and breathed new life into pinball. Soon new innovations such as the dot-matrix display, video-mode, ball-saver, and the automated ball plunger were introduced and the current era of modern pinball truly began. Medieval Madness, Twilight Zone, Monster Bash, Scared Stiff, and many others that are still popular today were created and sold respectably, but it was too little too late for many companies, as they were sold or dissolved by their parent corporations. In 1998 Williams Manufacturing introduced their Pinball 2000 series that combined pinball with video (Star Wars: Episode 1 and Revenge from Mars) but the sales were less than hoped for and they soon left the pinball business. That left just two companies, Sega Pinball and Stern Electronics.

In 1999, Stern bought Sega and became Stern Pinball, making them the sole manufacturer of new pinball machines today. Since then Stern has released new games at a steady pace that are exclusively based on licensed properties and proven able to attract new players (Family Guy) and challenge old ones (Wheel of Fortune.) Thanks to the rise of home game rooms and private collectors, the market for both used pinball machines and new ones has been growing in recent years and will hopefully continue to do so keeping pinball alive far into the 21st Century.