Interesting Histories: Pinball

Paul Cathill
Jul 24, 2017 · 5 min read
By Stux

If somebody asked you when did the earliest form of pinball game appear? What would you say? 30s? 50s? 60s? Surprisingly it is much earlier than that, as its roots go all the way to 15th and 16th centuries, when games like ground billiards, croquet and bowls were the craze. The indoor versions of those games, usually played on top of a table, are the forefathers of the pinball machines that we know today.

During reign of Louis XIV, 1643–1715, a game called “Bagatelle” was invented. On a narrows wooden board, with many fixed pins in the middle, a player had to shoot a ball from one side and get it inside of small holes on the other. In this form of Bagatelle one obviously can find a lot of similarities with a game of billiards. Around 1750s and 1770s, instead of using a cumbersome cue or a stick to propel a ball forward, somebody decided to add a coiled spring and a plunger to the board, the same type that is used to this day, and called it “Japanese Billiards”. Now we have something very similar to the modern pinball machine.

Billard japonais, Southern Germany/Alsace ca. 1750–70. By Wuselig.

It was British inventor Montague Redgrave who pushed forward the evolution of pinball back in 1871, or how it was called in his US Patent #115,357, “Improvements in Bagatelle”. He patented the use of a coil spring and a plunger, made the game small enough to fit on a table or a bar counter, replaced old bagatelle balls with marbles and added incline to the playfield.

In the 1930s, during the Great Depression, the first coin-operated versions of pinball appeared. It was a simple and cheap entertainment, and it did not take long for people to truly embrace it. David Gottlieb’s “Baffle Ball” became an instant hit in 1931 and sold over 50,00 units, at the same time making Gottlieb the first major manufacturer of pinball machines. In 1932 came a pinball game called Ballyhoo, manufactured by Bally, a company founded by an inventor Raymond T. Moloney. In only 7 months it sold more than 50,000 games, easily beating its predecessor.

An early pinball game without flippers. By Huhu.

The 30s also brought another innovation to pinball machines in a form of electrification. Lights and bells, sounds and music were added to the machines, making pinball not only fun to play, but also entertaining to watch. In 1934, the first automatic scoring mechanism was added, in 1937, the “coil bumpers” were introduced, and in 1939, “disc bumpers” made their first appearance. The pinball industry was on the rise. About 150 companies were established by the end of 1932, most of them in Chicago, but by 1934 only 14 remained, the biggest and the most successful. World War II slowed down the development and manufacturing of pinball machines, but when it eventually ended, pinball quickly rose to popularity once again, sparking another golden era for the game.

One of the biggest and most important innovations in the modern pinball machines came in 1947, introduced by the Gottlieb’s game called Humpty Dumpty that featured the first form of player-controlled flippers to bounce the ball around the playfield. There were three pairs of them, as they were underpowered and could not launch the ball high enough to reach the top of the board. Then came Triple Action with its pair of more powerful outwards facing flippers at the bottom of the playfield, and with the game called Spot Bowler did the standard of dual inward facing flippers came into light.

Until the 1980s pinball was on the rise. In the 1970s the introduction of microprocessors gave another boost of innovation, making truly amazing games with more complex rules, better lighting, crazy sounds effects, catchy music and even speech. Then came the 1980s with its video games, and the pinball industry took a very hard hit. Came the times of Pac-Man and Space Invaders, and next to them the mechanical wonders of pinball machines looked bleak. Many manufacturers folded, some merged, but barely anybody could make any money. New competition did spark a new wave of creativity and many great pinball machines came out during those troubling times, such as Space Shuttle, Firepower, Xenon and many other highly acclaimed but commercially unsuccessful games.

By Richfife.

Thankfully, pinball story did not end in the wild 80s. In the 1990s the coin-operated video game industry collapsed, thanks to home console and personal computer, letting pinball machines to have another renaissance. It was not as grand as a couple of decades earlier, but many new machines were released, notably some nice licensed products, such as The Addams Family, Indiana Jones and Star Trek. Then the 90s ended and so did the pinball fever, and most of the major manufacturers shut their doors for good.

Some may say that pinball machines are the way of the past, but many would disagree. There are still a good number of small time manufacturers, and there is a quite large community of collectors. Owning a pinball machine is not cheap or easy, but definitely great fun. In 2013, Jersey Jack Pinball released a new type of a pinball machine, The Wizard of Oz, its mechanical backbox was replaced with a huge LCD, making it fully digital experience. There are going to be more innovations and new generation of players will embrace them. But for now grab some coins and hit those old arcades near you. Time to play some ball!

History contains best narratives, best heroes, best villains, best adventures and best romance. At Interesting Histories we try to find those small stories that educate and fascinate us, stories that tell about bygone times and exotic locations. Join us on this world wide romp.

Paul Cathill

Written by

I love to write - flash fiction, short stories, assays, historical articles, books. Anything that can be written I want to try to write it.

Interesting Histories

History contains best narratives, best heroes, best villains, best adventures and best romance. At Interesting Histories we try to find those small stories that educate and fascinate us, stories that tell about bygone times and exotic locations. Join us on this world wide romp.

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