8 Minute Read
When you see first see a pinball machine, you might think it's super retro. But you'd be surprised to learn how popular pinball is. There were just 500 players in 50 competitions in the world 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'll want to know about this fascinating game.
The earliest version of pinball didn't really look like what the game is 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 kind of like a mini pool table. You'd hit the ball around with the cue-like stick.
The ball would bounce around off of 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, nor did it use electricity.
In 1871, the British inventor Montague Redgrave decided to make improvements to 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 is what 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, then it was up to Lady Luck what your score would be.
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 and they named it a "whiffle board."
Next up was a game called "Ballyhoo," which was invented in the 1930s by Raymond Maloney. Later on, he went on to establish the Bally Manufacturing Company of Chicago, IL.
Other games invented in 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, which are a stark contrast to the pinball machines of today, which are made of chrome and steel.
Despite all these inventions in the early 1930s, none of them were actually called pinball! It wasn't until 1936 that the term "pinball" was coined.
In 1933, the first pinball machine powered by electricity was made. All they did was simply fit a battery to the machine.
The sounds would happen through electromechanical bells, chimes, and buzzers. And the score was kept through a clock counter.
Just a year later, pinball machines became much more attractive with lights and back-light colored glass. And in 1937, Bally's "Bumper" pinball machines were the first ones 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 Great Depression started in 1929, and you would've expected fun and games to die out during this time. 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 2 tilt devices: one for tilting side to side, and one for "slam tilt," which is when a player would bang the machine with their hand.
Even the oldest pinball machines with the tilt mechanism had warnings built-in. This meant players wouldn't get immediately penalized for trying to manipulate the machine.
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.
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 faced outward, away from each other. Engineer and game creator Steve Kordek was integral in creating what we think of as the modern pinball game
In 1950, D. Gottlieb & Co. created "Spot Bowler," which used flippers that are 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 would adopt the 3-inch flippers that we use today.
Pinball was extremely popular from 1948 to 1958, but did you know it was technically illegal to play in most major cities during that time?
In 1942, the municipality of New York City decided to ban pinball machines. This was because there were laws against gambling, and people commonly betted 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 come as a surprise that many of the big criminal names controlled the pinball industry in Chicago.
In addition, WWII was still going on. Many saw the production of pinball machines as a waste and detriment to the war efforts, so they finally banned it.
The police then raided multiple public spaces that had these machines, such as bowling alleys and amusement centers. NYC's Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia gathered with police chiefs and smashed these pinball machines up 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 laws that were less harsh, 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 instead, skill. In 1976, it was also lifted in New York.
After the prohibition on pinball was lifted in the 1970s, this game went through some major changes. This decade saw the invention of solid-state (electronic) pinball machines.
But because this was also the period where video games arose, pinball really 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 electro-mechanical 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 produced 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 major designer and manufacturer of pinball machines: Stern Pinball.
As you can see from the statistic in the introduction, pinball has made a comeback. In the mid-2010s, many new and improved pinball machines arrived on the market.
For instance, they use LED playfield lighting and embedded LCD monitors and backboards. Some even have animatronics, like Jurassic Park by Stern Pinball!
Stern Pinball has been a leader in the resurgence of pinball both with home enthusiasts and as well as the arcade by launching exciting new titles each year. Check out our post on how it can boost your business here.
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, family entertainment center, or just want a pinball machine for your basement, consider buying one from Betson. We have almost 90 years of experience, which means we can get you exactly what you need at very affordable prices.
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