YOU PROBABLY FIRST ENCOUNTERED PINBALL AT A LOCAL drugstore or a boardwalk arcade, drawn by the lights, the bells, the balls, the colors. How could you resist a game where a skillful bat of a flipper could send a metal ball hurtling 90 miles an hour toward a dazzling array of targets? For a very long time many people couldn’t.
Pinball’s roots go back to bagatelle, a game in which players used a cue to shoot balls into numbered holes at the end of a board. In the seventeenth century this diversion, or an early form of it, was a favorite at the court of Louis XTV, and when French noblemen crossed the Atlantic to lend their aid to the American Revolution, they took it with them.
The game spread so thoroughly that a political cartoon depicted the 1864 presidential race between Abraham Lincoln and George B. McClellan as a bagatelle match. But not until after the Civil War did the first major innovation in it occur. In 1871 Montague Redgrave, of Cincinnati, introduced a spring-loaded plunger to propel the ball, doing away with the cue stick. He also added pins around the holes to make the game more challenging, bells, and, later, a window to allow players to see how far back they had pulled the plunger. He claimed that the plunger would make it much easier to “impart that exactitude of force which is the foundation of success in the game,” an assertion with which most pinball aficionados would have to agree. Bagatelle became popular in saloons, and Redgrave opened factories in Jersey City and Philadelphia.
It didn’t really take off, though, until after the In and Outdoor Games Company of Chicago introduced a bagatelle named Whoopee in 1931 and made it coin-operated. Around the same time, Automatic Industries, of Youngstown, Ohio, introduced its own coin-operated game, Whiffle. Whoopees cost $175 apiece, not an attractive price in the midst of the Great Depression, but an enterprising young man named David Gottlieb put together his own version, called it Baffle Ball, and priced it at $17.50.
Such an inexpensive device for gobbling up coins had broad appeal, and Baffle Ball sold 50,000 machines in its first six months. A penny in the slot bought seven balls, and the 16-by-24-inch game could sit on a countertop, making it a perfect diversion for barbershops, drugstores, tobacconists, and speakeasies. When a Baffle Ball distributor named Ray Moloney found himself swamped with back orders, he decided to offer his own version, the Ballyhoo, for $16. It launched the Bally gaming empire, and soon 150 companies were supplying what had become a craze. Most of them went out of business within a year or two.
The great animating force in bagatelle machines, electricity, appeared in the early 1930s. (The word pinball would not enter the language until the middle of the decade.) In 1933 Harry Williams, of the Pacific Amusement Company, introduced the Contact, which used solenoids, coils of wire that act as magnets when an electric current passes through them, to power “kick-out holes,” which bounced a trapped ball back into play. Then in 1936 Bally brought out Bumper, a game in which electrified bumpers replaced the target holes. Ever since the dawn of bagatelle, the goal had been to sink each ball into a hole marked with a score; now it was to hit a bumper or another target, which would bounce the ball and send a signal to a scoring mechanism. (Active bumpers, which forcefully repel the ball, began to appear in the late 1940s.) The score appeared on a new vertical panel placed at the back.
When, in a local drugstore, Williams saw a player shaking one of his machines to influence the ball’s path, he invented an anticheating mechanism, which he first called a “stool pigeon.” It initially used a ball that would fall off a small pedestal; this was soon replaced by the tilt device still used today—a pendulum that sets off an alarm when it touches an encircling metal ring.
In 1933 several manufacturers, wanting to compete with slot machines, started offering payouts: a nickel, a free game, or some other prize. This turned out to be a big misstep, from which the industry would take many decades to recover. The payout gave the machines an association with gambling and organized crime; people feared that schoolchildren would gamble away their lunch money. By the end of the 1930s pinball had been banned in many places, along with slots.
IN NEW YORK CITY THE PROCESS WAS AS COLORFUL AS the machines themselves. Mayor Fiorello La Guardia declared war on gambling upon his election in 1933, asserting that it benefited “slimy crews of tinhorns, welldressed and living in luxury on penny thievery.” A magistrate outlawed pinball in January 1942. A delighted La Guardia posed for photographs while smashing the machines with sledgehammers and watching their remains get dumped into the East River. Soon afterward pinball had been banned in Los Angeles and even in Chicago, its main producer.
It remained illegal in New York City until 1976, when an enthusiast named Roger Sharpe brought two machines before the City Council. Years later he recalled, for Newsday : “I gave a little discussion and then started to play. And… I told the Council members and the media, ‘Look, there’s skill, because if I pull the plunger back just right, the ball will, I hope, go down this particular lane.’ And you could call it either skill or divine intervention, but the ball went down that lane, and that was it.… The Council passed it six to nothing.”
In 1941 a Bally PR man, Herb Jones, had attempted to rally the alarmed manufacturers by staking a place for pinball as a particularly American amusement: “Our industry exists because the hard-working, hard-playing American public … welcomes the relaxation, the release from worry, the low-cost amusement … America’s greatest, most democratic, nation-wide, continuous-performance show!” But a far bigger show opened later that year, and during World War II no new machines were produced. Pinball manufacturers retooled to make machinegun parts, rocket components, and parachute equipment.
After the war they returned to their trade and added new features such as ramps and chutes. But what was really needed was a skill element to set pinball apart from gambling devices like slot machines. That came along in 1947, when Gottlieb introduced pinball’s last major innovation, the flipper, in a game called Humpty Dumpty. The flipper was devised by a Gottlieb employee using the same kind of solenoid that had already sent balls shooting back out of holes. The Humpty Dumpty had six flippers, three along each side of the playing area; before long they would take their now familiar place at the exit at the bottom of the table, enabling a skilled player to keep a ball in play almost indefinitely.
Pinball was now the game we all know or remember, and the decade 1948 to 1958 was its golden age. Gottlieb put out a new design every three weeks, and Williams, the next biggest firm, wasn’t far behind. Gottlieb issued games that allowed more than one player to take turns in head-tohead competition, and by the 1960s spinning targets, drop targets (which would retract into the floor after being hit), slingshots, rollovers (targets that score points when the ball rolls over them), and “add-a-ball,” the reward of extra balls for high scores, were added to even the most basic machines. Yet there was still usually just one designer behind each machine, creating everything from the layout of the playing field to most of the wiring. If the designer had an idea for a new feature, he had to make it work and incorporate it himself.
By the mid-1970s complicated electromechanical switches, relays, and circuit wiring were giving way to microchips. Machines could keep score digitally, record voices (Glint Eastwood lent his baritone to a Dirty Harry game that would erupt in lines like “Go ahead, make my day” when a player hit a target), and become even louder and flashier. Still, despite all the microchips, today’s standard pinball machine contains more than a half-mile of wiring.
Pinball enjoyed a renaissance in 1975 when the movie of Tommy , the Who’s rock opera about a deaf, dumb, and blind pinball prodigy, came out, but it went into a decline in the 1980s, as it had to compete first with video-arcade games like Pac-Man and then with home units like Nintendo. During the 1990s, according to Vending Times , which covers the industry, the number of machines in the United States dropped from 1,000,000 to 360,000. Now there is only one manufacturer left in the world, Stern Pinball, outside Chicago. It produces about 8,000 units a year, about half of which go to Europe, especially France, which has long been fond of the game even with its New World embellishments.
The antique pinball market, on the other hand, is flourishing, as nostalgic baby boomers seek out the games they played in their youth. Most of them are male, because most pinball players are male, and last year sales of their quarry increased by 40 percent on eBay. One collector, Tim Arnold, owns more than a thousand. He told Cigar Aficionado , “We kind of define collectors as one-digit, two-digit, and threedigit collectors. The one-digit collector has a couple in his basement, while the twodigit collector, he no longer has his cars in his garage. The three-digit collector is spending all his money on a storefront or a bunch of U-Store-Its.”
Their enthusiasm appears to be well placed. Although European companies did manufacture their own pinball machines for a time, Harry McKeown, an English historian of the game, claims that none really ever approached “the sparkle, imagination, excitement, and quality of American machines.” But the future lies in the next generation, and it is yet to be seen whether pinball can remain, in the words of a Gottlieb advertising slogan, “as American as baseball and hot dogs.”