Pinball: Its origin and history.

Pinball games evolved for one major reason. And that was to take money through the coin slot. Over time, manufacturers  improved the design and appearance of their games to attract more and more players. They produced advertising flyers for every game so as to encourage operators to buy a machine and earn a profit from it. The flyers all stated the same message: ‘ proven profits; moneymaker; big earner; money in the cashbox; sensational earning power ‘ in fact, anything that made the promise of a good income for their machine!

And the people who were tasked in designing were very clever to make a game that let the players come close to beating it but rarely let them actually do so. That ensured another coin went through the slot, to give the player another chance beat the game.

And for home use, this is a very desireable quality. Trying to both master and beat a game is just not easy. These vintage machines might look ‘plain janes’ in comparison to a machine built for todays market, but they are far from that. And it makes sure that a game that is played regularly doesn’t become boring, the challenge is always present.

They also made them visually good to the eye, with colourful lighting and superb art work, which attracted player. And this also makes them very suitable for home use. Having a piece of 1950s, 60s or 70s pinball art, particularly when lit up and night in the home is nicer to admire than any picture on the wall. And, they can be played as a bonus.

A little known fact is that the pinball industry of the 1950s and 1960s made more money than the American film industry in the same period! Forget Hollywood blockbusters, buy a few pinball machines! Such were their popularity, that manufacturers, like Gottlieb for example, were making a couple of new models, every month, such was the huge demand, both for the US market and the rest of the world.

The history of pinball goes back at least a hundred years. Simple games, produced for the home, where the player launched the ball so that it rolled down the playfield in to numbered hoops (formed from small hoops of metal pins, hence the name ‘pinball’). And the most numbers won were simply added up to give the final score award.

Designs didn’t really change until the early part of the twentieth century. Games evolved commercially and they could be operated with a coin, and though they were purely mechanical, they became popular. They were located on shop counters, where a game could be had for a small coin. Shop owners might pay a prize each week for the highest score, perhaps a bottle of soda or a pack of cigarettes.

And slowly, the gambling aspect of them grew, making their appeal far greater because a player could not only get some fun, but perhaps get a prize too. And as they continued to evolve and batteries were more plentiful, electrical features could be added. Then, the machines were designed to work on mains power and that saw great advances in player features, etc meaning that the ball in play actually made the features react to it. This then led to machines being able to tally up scores made. So from being a simple counter-top type game, they now were considerably larger, with a back-box head type unit sitting on top which held various electro-mechanical components that added up scores, rang bells when a certain score was achieved, and could even aware a free game if certain features were made. Add to that some attractive, themed artwork and a whole new vista opened up so the manufacturers could then really exploit the new market to make a considerable amount of money and of course, for those who had bought or rented a game too.

But human nature also played a role in ongoing game development. Players were often nudging a machine to make the ball bounce into a point winning target or feature. And while that was good for the player in that he or she made the game last for longer, or win a free game because the ball had been bounced, etc, the machine of course made less money for its owner operator. Indeed, so keen were some players in cheating the game, operators had to resort to weighing down with sand-bags or even nailing down, machines so that they could not be lifted to keep a ball in play for longer. And of course, the manufacturers soon got the message when operators were complaining that the promise of a profit from investing in an game was not being met. One of the game designers, Harry Williams, later of Williams pinball, invented a way of turning off the game if the player was too enthusiastic. He called it the ‘stool pidgeon’, later to become known as the ’tilt’, and the name has stuck ever since. Basically, machines had in built Mercury switches and or a simple plumb-bob weight in a metal housing that immediately shut power off to stop a machine working, if activated.

Harry Williams, in fact, was one of the great inventors of pinball machine design. He introduced many new features to the games, including the first use of an electro-mechanical solenoid on a machine named Contact, to physically kick a ball out of a hole.

Later on, in 1947, a Gottlieb game designer named Harry Mabs added what were called ‘Flipper bumpers’ to a game called Humpty Dumpty. We now know them simply as Flippers. Overnight pinball changed because now a ball could be shot back up the playfield and aimed at playfield features. This was a very important evolution. No longer could they be classed as random gambling machines, these were true games of skill and it meant that it was more difficult to ban them; a defining moment in Pinball history.

However certain states, including New York,still banned their use, right up 1976, and worse, Chicago, where they were manufactured! The politicians just would not accept that flippers introduced a level of skill. They considered that player pleasure of a game was a reward, and therefore, gambling.

The US had an aversion to gambling, a result of the 1920s addiction of speculation on stocks and shares which resulted in the Wall Steet crash and the Great Depression. To try and overcome the strict gambling rules, in 1960, David Gottlieb’s son, Alvin, designed a game which did not award replays. Instead of giving free games, the games gave extra balls instead and were know as Add-A-Ball games. Instead of the usual 3 or 5 ball game, a player could instead ‘win’ extra balls, up to 10 in total. And, as they score level would increase per ball played, extra score reels needed to be added by the manufacturer to count higher scores. Add a ball games often copied over design features from its replay cousin meaning they often looked very similar. Nowadays, Pinball collectors often have the replay and its cousin add-a-ball side by side in their games room! A great example of this might be Gottlieb’s ‘Buckaroo’ replay model, with ‘Cow-poke’ its add- a ball causing next to it, or Williams ‘Magic City’ and ‘Magic Town’ Add-a-ball machines, as they were built mainly for certain states, were built in smaller quantities, so are often highly sought after by collectors.

Despite the launch of Add-A-Balls, they were still not accepted as skill games for pleasure in some places. In the US, thousands of games were seized during police raids, and destroyed with sledge hammers or even set alight with petrol, before being sent to landfill. Some early fifties games had wooden legs, and these were turned in to night sticks for the US police!To give some idea of the scale of game seizures, in one year of game confiscations in New York alone, almost 1.5 ton of silver balls were collected from seized games!

In the UK, the problem really didn’t exist. Flipper and Bingo pinball games were a common sight in pubs, bars, arcades and cafes. It was illegal to pay out for won replays on the bingo games, but operators did it anyway To make money from re-selling the games onto the next player and little was done to control it. Basically, if a Bingo machine ( these could, on insertion of often, multiple coins, increase odds significantly, meaning that say, 5x6d or 1 shilling coins could, if the player knew how to play well, quadruple and more, the winning odds) had say, 100 replays racked up, the operator might switch its off as ‘out of order’ and give a decent reward to the player for the credits and leave other machines still in use. Then, if another player came in to play, he or she would be offered the 100 game credits for a good price, paid for in cash, the balance to the operator being the cherry on the cake. But, Bingo machines soon became known as ‘loosing your shirt’ type machines because players, say being paid in cash on a Friday, would go and try to double his money and sell the credits, as detailed above. But, if he didn’t, he risked going home with nothing in his pay-packet!

In Italy, it was illegal to have a window to show replays in the back glass, it was even illegal to show more than the five balls to play numbers on the Add-A Ball games. The extra balls won on those Italian games had to be shown by symbols like stars or balloons instead of numbers. It was illegal to have the word flipper on the apron. Italian games have the word button only. Any credits were shown by a lit insert on the apron. It didn’t show how many, just that one or more were available. That’s why a lot of Williams and Bally games have this insert that can light up. Gottlieb made special versions of their games for Italy, they even had special Italian themed back glass art, so non Italian games didn’t need a lit insert on the apron. Italian games even banned having a ‘knocker’ ( a simple device that made a loud noise when a replay was awarded) in the game! Late seventies Italian games, when their games had electronic sound cards, they had a sound made which signalled a high score in place of awarding a replay and sounding a knocker. They called that the “Biri Biri”. It sounded like a warning of a nuclear war!

Throughout their history, pinball games were constanty evolving. During the early 1950s, the side bumpers were improved to shoot the ball off their sides, instead of just bouncing the ball off and down. Games were fitted with all sorts of interactive designs. Holes which swallowed the ball for a big reward, termed ‘skill holes’ by Gottlieb, were common on 1950s games. The last game to have them was Sweethearts, made in 1963. They are now known as ‘gobble holes’ and were much disliked by many players. Zipper flippers ( these, after hitting a target, etc would close up together so the ball could not be lost) and were a common feature on Bally and Williams games during the late sixties and early seventies, but they were not seen after that. It is rumoured that WIlliams dropped using them due to copyright issues! The biggest change was the move from 2″ flippers to 3″, which happened around 1970. It changed the way games played significantly, as the longer flippers allowed better ball control.

A great feature of an electro-mechanical game are things like Flippers, pop bumpers, dead bumpers, slingshots, kick out holes, targets, roto targets, bells, scoring, animation etc. They awarded replays for earning set high scores, and achieving series of events. Maybe lighting a set of images, or getting the balls through a set of rollovers. There were  many different ways of winning designed in to these games, often a game had several ways to win a replay. The result of doing this was usually a red coloured plastic ‘insert’ in the playfield, or several, would light up for a SPECIAL WHEN LIT. Hitting the lit SPECIAL awarded a replay, or several, such was the attraction of these games to pinball players.

In the early days of the twentieth century, there were hundreds of small businesses and one man bands making those early simple counter top games which evolved, once the money-maker aspect was realised, into 4 major manufacturers, Gottlieb, Williams, Bally and Chicago-Coin, in Chicago, Illinois, USA.

Bally’s forte was manufacturing Bingo & other gambling  arcade games until the early sixties. When the USA finally managed a total ban on them in 1963, Bally turned their attention to producing flipper pinball games, and soon became a major player. All 4 manufacturers made pinballs throughout the golden era of the 50s and 60s when some stunning electro mechanical pinball machines were made. Zaccaria of Bologna, Italy, also made EM games of very high quality during the 1970s.

As stated earlier, the Bingo style pinballs were the greatest money earners of all because players became addicted to them. There must have been thousands of punters who lost wage packets, marraiges and who knows what else because of them. Even without the lure of a big payout, they are still real fun to play, and are more sought after than flipper pinballs by some collectors. They were despised by the US authorities as they were pure gambling machines. Unlimited coins could be used to improve the odds and features, building up a game. Bally and United were the main manufacturers, even Williams made a few, and they all produced a large variety of games with many different features. Multi cards, supercards, number spotting, magic lines, magic corners, magic squares, magic screens, OK red letter games, the golden game, some with a futurity feature. Some guaranteed the next game free, with certain features lit, if the player could land the balls in the correct holes. Every new style game gave more features and the impression that it would make the game easier to beat. Of course, it was all an illusion. They were all designed to take as much money as possible, and the player had no real chance of winning.  Most gave the opportunity to gamble for two or three extra balls after the five balls the game included had landed in numbered holes, using replays or more coins. They all had ‘FOR AMUSEMENT ONLY’ labels, but it was never true. They were money makers, pure and simple as that. Games could be rigged to ensure they rarely paid big wins. Switches were altered so they could never light a feature,or vital wires cut to reduce the players chance of winning. They were also fitted with a type of stepper unit called the reflex unit, which made the game actually harder to beat as replays were won, and easier as they were used up or coins put in the slot. You never really stood a chance! Of course, after the game got harder because of won replays, it took a far greater number of replays or coins to make them easier again.  In turn, features like these involved some very complex circuitry which used miles of tiny cables and assorted relays, could, etc so very complex beasts to maintain and repair, particularly if they were roughly handled by disgruntled users! Every type of bingo was soon banned, so another type appeared in order that the makers could stay one step ahead of the law. It took time for the court proceedings to ban a game, so they could be operated for a while, until the ban was made. They were operated illegally as well, even when they were banned, but were seized and destroyed if discovered. In 1963, the movement of games and spare parts from state to state in the US was made a federal offence and it finally stopped the manufacture of games for use there. Any  bingo type games made after that were for export only, to Holland and Belgium especially. There are still only three states in the US where bingo style pinballs can be legally operated to this day.

Reference has been made about pinball artwork. Two US graphic designers, who between them drew the art for virtually all the US games produced up to the mid 60’s were George Molentin for Williams and Bally art, whilst Leroy ‘Roy’ Parker did the work for Gottlieb. Collectors argue on which was the best, but my vote will always go to Roy Parker. Just look through the various internet sites to see what I mean! ( The header image shown on these website pages is a typical example of one of his artwork designs) Cristian Marche introduced a different type of back glass art in the late 60s, with his abstract ‘pointy people’ or ‘pop-art’ though he could still do the tradtional comic art as well. Art Stenholm took over following Roy Parker’s death in 1966, but he had already proved his worth with Gottliebs North Star and Williams Heat Wave before then. Dave Christiansen changed the back glass style in the early seventies, with his more sensual drawings of er, well endowed ladies. Lorenzo Rimondini was responsible for the art on Zaccaria games. They all produced artwork of the highest quality, the like of which will never be seen again. So, whilst the artwork attracted players, the game itself had to be good too. One Harry Mabs, who designed Flippers. Steve Kordek, who placed two flippers at the bottom of the playfield, where they have been ever since. He also invented the drop target, amongst many other things. Harry Williams, for so many firsts, he is responsible for many ideas that evolved the game. And Wayne Neyens for all those classic Gottlieb games. The list goes on and on.

To me, the magic of pinball ended in the late 1970s, when these beautiful old EM games were replaced with new style games using those solid state electronics, not relays, reset banks, solenoid driven steppers and a motor. The art work began to change,  it  became more commercial, the lighting was altered and the games looked more like a flashing pub fruit machine than traditional pinball. The games got more complicated, the sounds became electronic beeps and then speech & music. The simple charm of the electro mechanical pinball machine slowly disappeared. Now all we have left are an ever decreasing number of these classic machines, to remind us of a wonderful period. Fortunately, other collectors and myself and of course replacement part manufacturers,continue to keep these wonderful old ladies alive for many years to come.