August 12, 2023

The Founding of the Flippers: Your Guide to the History of Pinball

8 Minute Read

When you first see a pinball machine, you might think it’s retro. But you’d be surprised to learn how popular pinball is. There were just 500 players in 50 competitions back in 2006. But as of 2021, those numbers have grown to over 84,000 players and 37,000 competitions.

Are you thinking again about this game? Wondering about the history of pinball?

Then, keep reading. We’ll cover every detail you want to know about this fascinating game.

Playing Pinball

The History of Pinball: The Beginning

The earliest version of pinball didn’t look like the game today. We can trace pinball back to the older days in Europe, where lawn games were extremely popular.

To get the same fun indoors, Europeans created a parlor game called Bagatelle tables; the French invented it in the late 18th century. This would be a wooden box, like a mini pool table. You’d hit the ball around with the cue-like stick.

The ball would bounce off the various pins stuck into the board. They were strategically placed so they’d form pockets with scores on them. The ball would land in these pockets, and your score would be whatever the pockets said.

In its earliest form, pinball did not have flippers or use electricity.

An Improved Version of Bagatelle

In 1871, the British inventor Montague Redgrave decided to improve the already existing game of Bagatelle. He was given a US patent for this.

Redgrave made the gave a lot more compact. He shrunk the table, replaced the balls with smaller marbles, and inclined the box. He also added a coiled spring and plunger, which modern pinball machines use.

As you may have noticed, these Bagatelle tables were strictly based on luck. After you released the ball from the plunger and onto the table, it was up to Lady Luck what your score would be.

The First Pinball Machines

It wasn’t until the 1930s that the first modern-looking, coin-operated pinball machine was invented. It was created by the company Automatic Industries, which named it a “whiffle board.”

Next up was a game called “Ballyhoo,” invented in the 1930s by Raymond Maloney. Later, he established the Bally Manufacturing Company of Chicago, IL.

Other games invented this time include “Bingo” by Bingo Novelty Company and “Baffle Ball” by D. Gottlieb & Co. All of these games were made with wooden legs and tables, starkly contrasting the pinball machines of today, which are made of chrome and steel.

Despite all these inventions in the early 1930s, none of them were called pinball! It wasn’t until 1936 that the term “pinball” was coined.

Electric Pinball Machines

In 1933, the first pinball machine powered by electricity was made. All they did was fit a battery into the machine.

The sounds would happen through electromechanical bells, chimes, and buzzers. And the score was kept through a clock counter.

Pinball machines became much more attractive a year later with lights and back-light colored glass. In 1937, Bally’s “Bumper” pinball machines were the first to be outfitted with coil bumpers. 2 years later, in 1939, disc bumpers were also invented. In 1975, Micro released the first solid-state electronic pinball machine, the “Spirit of 76” the first solid-state electronic pinball machine.

The Introduction of Tilt

The Great Depression started in 1929, and you would’ve expected fun and games to die out. But instead, pinball rose in popularity. This was because it was a low-cost game that anyone could play and get some respite from the hardships of everyday life.

To keep people coming and playing, many pinball operators would give away prizes if people could get high scores. This motivated players to cheat during pinball by doing everything they could to manipulate the outcome, such as picking up the table and shaking it.

To counteract this, the tilt mechanism was invented in 1935 by Harry Williams, the founder of the Williams Manufacturing Company. Today, pinball machines have two tilt devices: one for tilting side to side and one for “slam tilt,” when a player bangs the machine with their hand.

Even the oldest pinball machines with the tilt mechanism had warnings built-in. Players wouldn’t get immediately penalized for trying to manipulate the device.

World War II

Pinball experienced a temporary lapse in popularity because of the Second World War. Between 1939 and 1945, all production efforts in the US had to go towards the war, so as you can guess, there were barely any pinball machines produced during this period.

Compare that to the popularity of the game before WWII. When pinball was first created in the early 1930s, there were 145 pinball manufacturing companies; most were located in Chicago.

But because the competition was so fierce, most dropped out by the mid-1930s. By then, there were less than 14 companies still in business.

The “Golden Age” of Pinball: Flippers

After WWII, the public regained interest in pinball. This was especially true after D. Gottlieb & Co. invented flippers in 1947. The Humpty Dumpty was the very first pinball machine with flippers.

The “Golden Age” of pinball lasted from 1948 until 1958. During this time, there were several interesting developments with flippers.

For example, in 1948, Geneco used flippers for their pinball machine, “Triple Action.” But what made it unique was the placement. Today’s flippers face inward, towards one another, but Triple Action’s flippers face outward, away from each other. Engineer and game creator Steve Kordek was integral in creating what we consider the modern pinball game. 

In 1950, D. Gottlieb & Co. created “Spot Bowler,” which used flippers very similar to the ones we see today. However, they’re tiny when compared with modern pinball machines. It’d be another 20 years before manufacturers adopted the 3-inch flippers we use today.

The Banning of Pinball

Pinball was extremely popular from 1948 to 1958, but did you know it was technically illegal to play in most major cities then?

In 1942, the municipality of New York City decided to ban pinball machines. This was because there were laws against gambling, and people commonly bet on the outcome of pinball games and bingo pinball machines.

And remember how most pinball manufacturers were located in Chicago? During this time, much of the organized crime happened there. So, it shouldn’t be surprising that many big criminal names controlled the pinball industry in Chicago.

In addition, WWII was still going on. Many saw the production of pinball machines as waste and a detriment to the war efforts, so they finally banned it.

The police then raided multiple public spaces with these machines, such as bowling alleys and amusement centers. NYC’s Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia gathered with police chiefs and smashed these pinball machines in front of the press.

After NYC approved this ban, other cities that followed suit included Los Angeles, Chicago, Milwaukee, and New Orleans. Other cities (like Washington, DC) had less harsh laws, such as barring children from playing pinball during school hours. As a result, pinball became part of the underground rebel culture during this time.

It wasn’t until 1974 that the California Supreme Court overturned pinball prohibition in Los Angeles. They ruled that pinball was not a game of chance but skill. In 1976, it was also lifted in New York.

For an interesting view into the ban on pinball and its reversal, check out the movie Pinball: The Man Who Saved the Game (2022), which follows the story of Roger Sharpe and his efforts to lift the ban.

The Fall of Pinball

After the prohibition on pinball was lifted in the 1970s, this game underwent significant changes. This decade saw the invention of solid-state (electronic) pinball machines.

But because this was also the period when video games arose, pinball struggled to stay in public favor. Video games were easier to run, less prone to issues, and took up less space. So, operators were ditching pinball machines in favor of video games.

During this time, D. Gottlieb & Co (leader of electromechanical pinball machines) fell to Bally and Williams, which produced electronic machines. In the 1980s, Bally and Williams dominated the pinball industry. In the 1990s, they made many of the themed games you’ve played, such as Twilight Zone, Monster Bash, and Addams Family, their most popular game.

The popularity of pinball fell and fell. Eventually, in 2002, there was just one primary designer and manufacturer of pinball machines: Stern Pinball.

Pinball Revival

Pinball is experiencing a remarkable revival in popular culture, captivating enthusiasts and attracting a whole new generation of players. Once considered a relic of the past, pinball has made a triumphant comeback, defying the rise of digital gaming. With its tactile nature, flashing lights, and mechanical ingenuity, pinball offers a unique gaming experience that cannot be replicated by virtual platforms. Its resurgence can be attributed to a renewed appreciation for retro aesthetics, the thrill of physical gameplay, and the sense of nostalgia it evokes.

In addition, innovative advancements have led to the creation of cutting-edge machines that feature dazzling artwork, interactive elements, and immersive themes. Today, pinball is celebrated at dedicated pinball arcades, featured in museums and exhibitions, and showcased in competitive tournaments. The revival of pinball in popular culture proves that some classics never go out of style, and it continues to inspire and delight both long-time fans and newcomers alike. As you can see from the statistics in the introduction, pinball has returned. In the mid-2010s, many new and improved pinball machines arrived.

For instance, they use LED playfield lighting, embedded LCD monitors, and backboards. Some even have animatronics, like Jurassic Park by Stern Pinball!

Stern Pinball has led the resurgence of pinball with home enthusiasts and the arcade by launching exciting new titles each year. Check out our post on how it can boost your business here.

Get a Pinball Machine for Your Arcade

Now that you know the history of pinball, you’ll see that it’s a classic game that everyone still likes, even modern kids; a pinball machine would be a great addition to any arcade, as both adults and children alike will enjoy playing this simple yet fun game.

So, if you have an arcade or family entertainment center or want a pinball machine for your basement, consider buying one from Betson.

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