Pinball Machine History



The History of Pinball Machines and Pintables                                          

The Birth Of Pinball : 1800s - 1900

The "ancestor" of all pinball machines is acknowledged to be the 19th century "Bagatelle-Table",
a sort of hybrid between a "pin table" and pool table. Players tried to hit balls with cue sticks and
get them into pockets or slots surrounded by nails and pins. Another step towards the modern
pinball form occurred sometime at the end of 19th century, when inventor Montague Redgrave patented a device called a "ball shooter", which was based on the recently invented steel spring.

                                                         "Ball-Shooter" Drawing, Circa 1830's

Games similar to this pictured below were first popular in bars and cafes in France and America,
but they were not coin operated - Players first exchanged money for balls to play with, then if players obtained a high enough score, they would be awarded free drinks, meals and or cigarettes. Soon after came the introduction of the first coin-operated Bagatelle and "Bingo" pin tables.

                                              Bagatelle Table Ad                      Bingo Pinball Ad

Pinball - The Early Years : 1930s - 1950s

The first coin-operated "pinball machine" was invented in 1931 by Automatic Industries and was called "Whiffle Board". But the gaming industry really began in the mid 1930's with the production
of a game called "Ballyhoo". It was invented by one Raymond Maloney, who later started the Bally
Manufacturing Company of Chicago, IL.

              "Whiffle Board", Automatic Ind., circa 1931                          "Ballyhoo", Bally Mfg, circa 1934
The pinball machines of this era had wooden legs and wooden rails on the sides of the machine,
not like today's modern marvels of chrome and steel.

                                                                  "Ballyhoo" Ad, Circa 1934

 It is thought the term "pinball" came into play at this time most likely due to the fact that the all the machines of this era had many holes and pins in them. In 1933, electricity was first introduced to pinball by adding a battery to the machine and in 1934, the first automatic scoring mechanism
would appear in the form of a "clock" counter, as well as the first "sounds" in a pinball machine
by way of electromechanical chimes, bells and buzzers. The popularity of the pinball machine rose dramatically during the mid to late 1930's in part due to the Depression and the need for low-cost entertainment for the masses. Since many pinball operators in the 1930's gave away prizes based
on high scores, some players tried to cheat by shaking and lifting the game, so in 1935, the "tilt" mechanism (a control that determine how hard a pinball machine can be "shaked") was thought
up by Harry Williams, founder of the famous Williams Manufacturing Company, in response to
players learning how to control the game to their advantage. Modern day pinball machines employ two such "tilt devices", one that measures the movement of the game side to side, and another
called the "slam tilt" that is used to movement up and down and prevents such acts as
"slamming" your hand into the machine or trying to drop the machine.

The "slam tilt" consists of a couple of "leaf switches" that detect a slam when they touch each
other, while the "movement tilt" uses a pendulum and bob device that freely hangs inside a metal detection ring. A tilt warning occurs when either the leaf switches meet or if the free-swinging pendulum rod touches the metal ring. Most modern machines give one to three warnings (user adjustable) before ending the game. Also in 1935, the first "backglass" appears with lighted
scoring. As more features were added, pinball machines are then outfitted with electrical transformers so they could be plugged into standard 110V electrical outlets; with that advance,
in 1937, the first "coil bumpers" were introduced on Bally's "Bumper" pinball machine. In 1939,
"disc bumpers" are then introduced to the game.

Pinball From The 50's to the 90's




Pinball machines really grew in popularity after World War II. The ten year period of 1948-58 is referred to by some as the "Golden Age" of pinball, due to the invention of flippers in 1947 by
the D. Gottlieb Co. in a game called "Humpty Dumpty", and was one of the main reasons for
the renewed interest in pinballs at the time.

                   "Humpty Dumpty" Gottlieb, circa 1947    
                 "Humpty Dumpty" Sales Flyer, circa 1947

In 1948, a firm called Genco placed one set of flippers at the very bottom of the playfield in a
machine called "Triple Action" - But the setup was still a little unusual by today's standards;
the flippers were facing outwards, not inwards like today's models. See the picture below:

                                                         "Triple Action", Genco Mfg., circa 1948                                      

The first game that had a modern flipper arrangement was the "Spot Bowler", a 1950's D. Gottlieb Co. machine. Take a look at the picture below if you have not seen any of these games - you will
be surprised at the smaller size and position of the flippers - it was not until the mid 70's that most pinball machines adopted the longer 3 inch flippers we play with on today's modern machines.

    "Spot Bowler" Playfield,  D. Gottlieb, circa 1950                      "Spot Bowler" Ad,  D. Gottlieb, circa 1950     

It was also in the mid 70's that solid-state (or electronic) pinball machines were first introduced, starting yet another huge wave of public popularity due to new games innovations, features,
Game reliability and cool design features like electronic scoring, alphanumeric scoring,
electronic sounds and finally electronic speech, which lasted well into the late 80's.


                "Spirit Of 76" Ad, Micro Games, circa 1975                        "Joker Poker", D. Gottlieb, circa 1978

The late 80's saw Williams and Bally merge to become the dominant player in the market, and in the 90's they both produced some of the most amazing pinball machines concepts ever dreamed of like Medieval Madness, Cirqus Voltaire, Twilight Zone, Theatre Of Magic, Monster Bash, Scared Stiff, Tales Of The Arabian Nights and the most popular pinball machine in modern history, Addams
Family (with over 20,000 produced), along with many other modern-day collectible classics, and finally the last pinball machines of the golden era of pinball manufacturers, Cactus Canyon and
the "Pinball 2000" machines, which combined video movies over standard pinball action.
                      "Addams Family", Bally Mfg., 1992                   "Revenge From Mars" (Pinball 2000), Bally Mfg, 1999

Pinball Today : The Next Century

Pinball has come a long way in the last ten years or so, particularly in complexity, rulesets and
game quality. Pinball will continue to advance with the introduction of high-tech devices and
advances incorporated into machine, such as LED's, LCD's, color dot-matrix displays, and
today new color LCD and plasma flat panel monitors replacing the traditional pinball playfield.

                                                   UltraPin Digital Pinball Machine From BMI Gaming: 1-800-746-2255 /           

                        "Virtual Pinball", TAB Austria, 2002                     "Ultrapin" Digital Pinball, Global VR, 2006

Pinball has now become a "in" item with high-profile celebrities, baby boomers, business exec's
& families, and has become a fixture on many TV shows and commercials, movie sets and many
magazine shoots, perhaps due to the "nostalgia factor" and the advent of personal home game rooms, or realization that a individual can now easily purchase a pinball machine, or the fact that playing a few good games of pinball after a hard day's work can be a tremendous stress-reliever!

                                                 Coke commercial with David Arquette shown
                                                   playing one of three classic pinballs in his
                                                    actual home collection in the foreground.

In 2009, the industry is left with just one major designer and manufacturer, Stern Pinball, based
in the Chicagoland area and run by Gary Stern, the son of Stern Electronics' founder Sam Stern. Stern has released quite a few interesting and collectable titles over the past few years, and
hopefully will continue on in the tradition of great firms like Williams and Bally on future releases.

                                                      Indiana Jones Pinball Machine By Stern Pinball From BMI Gaming: 1-800-746-2255
                                                         "Indiana Jones", Stern Pinball, 2008

Stern Pinball's ratio of "home sales" to commercial sales has risen from practically zero to an estimated 35% - 60% of their total sales in just the last 3 years, which is an encouraging new
market for them to sell into in the coming years as operator and commercial account orders
continue to dwindle. There have been some rumblings of other firms within the coin-op industry
having aspirations of jumping into the pinball machine game, but nothing seriously has been
reported or announced to date. It will be very interesting to see what the future holds for pinball
over the course of the next century... However, in late 2008, Stern announced, for the first time
in its history, a major layoff of many in-house pinball designers, engineers and technical staff,
due to declining sales because of the current economic climate, which questions the future
of Stern Pinball, and new pinball machines in doubt - So it you want to purchase a new pinball
machine, buy one as soon as possible, because we predict that if Stern actually goes out of business, the price of all remaining pinball machines will skyrocket after the economy improves.

As for the state of used or "pre-owned" machines, supplies are very tight and getting tighter,
with ASP (average selling price) of good quality of pre-owned pinball machine of popular titles
from the late 80's to 90's now appreciating at a rate of 10% - 25 % or more per year, even in
this economic climate, as more and more individuals discover (or re-discover) the pleasures
of pinball ownership and supplies dry up. Just a few years ago, America had all the machines
it ever needed to meet domestic supply; but now it is estimated that over 60 % of all preowned
pinball machines now sold in the US come from overseas sources in countries such as Western Europe and Latin America, due to the increasingly high demand from Americans, even now.

Surprising Pinball Facts:

Did you know that it was illegal to own a pinball machine in New York and other states
at one point in time? Pinball machines were officially banned in New York by Mayor LaGuardia
on January 21, 1942 because the administration viewed the game as a "game of luck" rather
than a "game of skill", hence making a pinball machine a gambling device (in their eyes).
To celebrate the new ban, Mayor LaGuardia proceeded to smash a large number of
pinball machines directly in front of large crowd of welcoming onlookers! 

From the Las Vegas Mercury Newspaper, Thursday, March 28, 2002 -

"In their earliest incarnations, some pin games (so named for the pins that dotted the playfield, guiding
the ball into holes with point values) such as Bally's 1933 Rocket offered cash payouts to the player if
he landed the ball in certain holes. It wasn't unusual to see such games taking their place next to conventional slot machines.

The advent of payout machines, versus nonpaying "novelty" machines manufactured by many of the
same companies, raised some sticky questions about this new form of entertainment: Was pinball a
game of skill or luck? The answer would mean the difference between a harmless game and a form of gambling- even if the "payout" was a free game.

Some states decided the latter and banned pinball machines. In January 1942, for instance, New York Mayor Fiorello Henry LaGuardia banned pinball as a form of gambling, smashing several machines
in a publicity stunt.

Also, the passage of the Johnson Act in 1950 outlawed interstate shipping of certain types of pinball machines, as they were deemed gambling devices. Pinball manufacturers such as Williams and
Gottlieb responded by mounting a campaign of their own under the aegis of the Coin Machine Institute; these pinball makers eliminated payout machines and sought to show that pinball was a wholesome pastime that had no connection to gambling--especially with the advent of flippers in 1947, which
turned pinball, more than ever, into a game of skill.

Still, the ban in New York lasted until 1976; free games in the form of  awarded replays are still illegal
in New York and in other cities, though the laws are rarely enforced."

Modern Pinball History Timeline

1951 - The first "slingshot" kickers were introduced.

1953 - The first two-player pinball machine is released. (pinball machines before this were
             strictly one player affairs)

1954 - The first multiple player pinball machine, "Super Jumbo", is released by D.Gottlieb.

1956 - The first "multiball" feature is featured on Bally's "Balls-A-Poppin" pinball machine

1957 - The first use of a "match" bonus feature (a number in your final score is matched at
             random to a number the machine picks, resulting in a free game, or "credit") in
             pinball is introduced.

1960 - The first "add-a-ball" (extra ball) game called "Flipper" is developed by D. Gottlieb.
            The add-a-ball award was developed to counter various laws in effect during this
            period that made it illegal for a game to award replays in certain parts of the
            country because it was consider a "gambling" activity.

1962 - The first drop target was introduced by Williams Manufacturing in the "Vagabond"
             pinball machine.

1963 - The first "spinners" were introduced.

1964 - The first "mushroom" bumper (common in all of today's modern games) was
             introduced by Bally

1966 - The first digital scoring pinball machine, "Rally Girl" is produced by a French
             company called Rally.

1968 - The first modern flippers (three inches) are introduced on Hayburners II by Williams

1975 - The first solid-state, or electronic pinball machine, "Spirit of 76", was first introduced
             by Micro. It marks the beginning of the switch from electromechanical (EM) machines
             to "solid-state", or electronics-based pinball machines.

1976 - The first widely available solid state pinball machine was introduced by Bally and is
             called "Freedom". Many of the games from the mid 70's were produced in two
             versions (both electronic and electromechanical), and the first "wide-body" pinball,
             "The Atarians" is introduced by Atari. Also in this year, the long-time pinball machine
             manufacturer, Chicago Coin, makes it last game - The company is taken over by
             Sam Stern and renamed "Stern Electronics". Gottlieb is sold to Colombia Pictures.

1977 - The first electronically produced sounds in a pinball machine were introduced. Also
             the first photographic backglass display is introduced by Bally on "Lost World"

1979 - The first "talking" or electronic speech game was introduced by Williams and was
            called "Gorgar", along with the first machines to have a continuous electronic
            background "soundtracks". This was also the year in which the very last electro-
            mechanical pinball machine is made by Gottlieb

1980 - The first "multi-level" pinball machine is produced by Williams as "Black Knight:

1984 - Colombia Pictures, owner of Gottlieb, decides to close. Company is taken over
            by Premier Technology.

1985 - The first "alphanumeric" game display is introduced

1986 - The first automatic replay percentage feature is introduced. Also the first pinball
            machine that uses a actual photo on the glass is introduced by Gottlieb on "Raven"

1987 - The first pinball machine with stereo sound (Laser War) is produced by Data-East.

1988 - Bally Manufacturing is taken over by Williams Electronics, but the two companies
            continue to produce separate lines of pinball machines under both names.

1990 - The first solid-state (electronic) flippers are introduced by Data-East.

1991 - The first "dot-matrix" game display is introduced by Data-East in "Checkpoint"
             along with video "modes" that animate certain parts of the game part on screen.
             Also in the year, electronic plungers become common and the "ball-saver" feature
             is introduced, in part due to laws in the UK (England) governing games of chance.

1994 - Sega buys out Data-East

- Gottlieb goes out of business for good.

1998 - The first pinball machine with a video screen integrated into the design is introduced
             by Williams in their new "Pinball 2000" series machines.

1999 - After just two Pinball 2000 releases, Williams Manufacturing (WMS) exits the pinball
            machine business for good, but continues on as a maker of gaming devices for the
            global gambling industry. Also in this year, Gary Stern buys Sega Pinball, renames
            the combined firms Stern Pinball and continues on as the only pinball producer
            in the world today (as of early 2004).

2002 - A prototype of the first truly digital pinball machine, Virtual Pinball, is  introduced at
            the 2002 IAAPA Amusement Show in Orlando by TAB Austria, and comes with a
            a flat panel monitor replicating the playfield and housed in a non-standard cabinet.

2006 - The first digital video pinball machine that replicates the look, play and feel of a
             traditional pinball machine, UltraPin, is introduced by GlobalVR, and features
             twelve re-created classic pinball machine playfields from Funhouse, Eight Ball,
             Pin-Bot, Medieval Madness, Black Knight 2000, Attack from Mars, F-14 Tomcat,
             Fathom, Firepower, Strikes and Spares, Sorcerer and Xenon all in one unit.




Acknowledgments to the Internet Pinball Database and The Coca-Cola Company for some picture content in this article


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