VINTAGE PINBALL HISTORY
A Game of Chance or a Game of Skill?
Pinball history dates back to at least the 15th Century when most games were played outdoors. Pinball descends from games like bowling and bocce ball and early incarnations of games that required the use of sticks to hit balls like shuffleboard and croquet. These games eventually had indoor versions created like bowling. Table versions became popular with a new game called billiards, designed to bring croquet indoors.
A party thrown in 1777 for the French King Louis XVI introduced the game of Bagatelle to the French nobility. Neither yet older than 25, the young king and his brother, Compte d'Artois, held the party at d'Artois' estate named Chateau d'Bagatelle outside Paris. Bagatelle took its name from his estate, as soon every aristocrat in France had a table made and told others where they'd played. The story of the chateau itself resonates with the gambling history of pinball that began when the new King handed over the deed to Chateau d'Bagatelle to his brother. Only transferable by royal decree, the chateau sat dilapidated for a long time and d'Artois promised to restore the home to its former glory. The king's wife, the infamous Marie Antoinette, scoffed at such a claim and bet d'Artois he couldn't complete a new Chateau d'Bagatelle within seven weeks. The king's brother took the bet and set some 900 workers to the task until, indeed he completed the new Chateau d'Bagatelle in time for the famed party where Bagatelle made its debut.
Based loosely on games like Nine Pins, Nine Holes, Mississippi, Rocks of Scilly, Troumadame and Scoring Pockets, mostly games for the privileged who had leisure time to spare. Without machinery to automate them, games similar to early bowling got tiresome because of constantly having to reset the pins. Someone, possibly Compte d'Artois, decided to have the pins be permanently attached to the board and have targets around them that counted as points. These pins later gave pinball its name.
Essentially a narrower billiard table on a slope or rake, players took their shots using a miniature pool stick to the propel the ball up a channel or shooter lane, and score points as the ball landed in scoring pockets below. Much of the game was left to chance as the interplay of gravity and pin placement determined the trajectory of the ball. Bagatelle differed from many other games of its time because the ball was shot indirectly at targets. The player only had partial control of the trajectory, and any control came from pre-planning. Holes of varying values were cut in the table, and players could use the fixed pins to ricochet the ball into the holes they were after.
French soldiers helping the Americans fight the English in the American Revolutionary War introduced Bagatelle to America. It didn't take long for the game to gain popularity in the new United States.
The photo above pre-dates Montague Redgrave's 1870 Improvement in Bagatelles patent, proving that he had inspiration for the ball shooter design. This machine is part of the permanent collection at the German Historical Museum in Berlin.
Nearly a century after Bagatelle's introduction came the innovation that created pinball. A British immigrant in America patented a miniaturized version of Bagatelle intended to appeal to children. Montague Redgrave, of Columbus, Ohio, received patent No. 115,357 on May 30, 1870 for Improvement in Bagatelles which included the spring loaded plunger, which rendered the pool stick obsolete and the bells.
The world’s first patent for a spring-loaded plunger, then called a “ball shooter.”
His 1871 Redgrave Parlor Bagatelle was the first to incorporate the plunger, but in the earliest models the plunger tip was not visible and the player was unable to see how far the plunger was from the ball. Also added to the playfield about this time were bells that the marbles could hit as they fell. This added sound as a new dimension of the games.
An essential but easily overlooked component to bagatelles, and ultimately pinball machines, occurred with the invention of the coin mechanism. The coin-op industry began when in 1889 entrepreneurs Louis Glass and William S. Arnold invented a five cent coin mechanism and attached it to an Edison cylinder phonograph, thereby creating the world's first jukebox. They placed the device in the Palais Royale, a San Francisco Saloon, and it became an instant success, earning over one thousand dollars the first six months!
The coin mechanism quickly became a standard feature of bagatelles. This allowed the devices, which originally started out as a simple parlor game, to become popular gambling devices in bars and pool halls. Coin mechanisms and the later addition of automatic pay out devices allowed the games to be kept out in the open. Glass was placed over the playfield to prevent cheating and the games could be played whenever a customer desired.
Automatic Industries "invented" the first coin-operated Pinball in 1931 with WHIFFLE BOARD, followed closely by David Gottlieb's BAFFLE BALL.
Raymond Maloney (a Gottlieb Distributor) was frustrated at not being able to get enough Baffle Balls (which were priced at 17.50, and sold over 50,000 units), so he formed his own company. The new Pinball Company was Lyon Manufacturing, and it manufactured the Maloney design, BALLYHOO.
After the success of Ballyhoo (selling over 75,000 units), Maloney re-named his company Bally Manufacturing.
Transition To Pinball As We Know It Today
First, while bagatelles were basically tabletop devices, the first true pinball machines came into existence with the addition of legs in 1932. The object of the game was still to get a plunger-launched ball into the desired hole on the playing surface, but with the games now waist-high, standing players were able to "nudge" the machine and thereby change the ball's trajectory. This ability to nudge the game added an important new dimension to playing the game.
The Rockola Company took the ability to nudge the machine a step further in 1933 by adding the ability of the machines themselves to mechanically nudge the ball. Rockola's WORLD’S SERIES and JIGSAW games provided such features. However, that same year a revolution was about to take place that rendered the mechanically ingenious ball-nudging devices obsolete - electricity was added to pinball!
California’s Place in Pinball History
People who know pinball know Chicago is the pinball center of the universe and the city where the majority of pinball companies created the majority of the world's games. But in the early days, California contributed new designs, the latest technological advances, and sure-fire money making hits.1933 was the year that California turned Pinball on its ear.
A young artist and engineer living in Los Angeles named Harry Williams came up with an innovative way to add action to the “gravity games” that were sweeping the nation. Using a battery-powered electric solenoid kicker he teamed up with Pacific Amusement Company’s Fred McClellan and introduced CONTACT. Squeaking in under the wire, Fred and Harry managed to get a booth at the February 1934 Chicago Coin Machine Convention where they stole the show away from the now mundane mechanical games. In all, some 27,000 units of Contact were produced not including the variations and knock-offs.
The success made young Harry Williams the premier game designer of the industry and ushered pinball into the electro-mechanical era. Unable to establish manufacturing facilities to keep up with the ever-increasing demand, Williams and McClellan eventually moved to Chicago. The California influence was so strong, that ironically, there were two coin-op expositions per year for a brief period, one in Chicago, and one in Los Angeles. This is a phenomenon that is repeating itself once more.
Above, Fred McClellan's daughter Marie stands between Richard Conger (left) and Michael Schiess to admire a CONTACT at the Lucky Ju Ju.
By the next couple of years almost all pinball manufacturers had added ball kickers of one type or another. Moreover, with the addition of electricity, playfield lights and electric bells became regular features in 1934. The addition of sound and light made the machines not only more fun to play but also enabled them to better attract the attention of players and spectators.
Perhaps just as important, though, the addition of electricity made possible two new revolutionary and interconnected devices invented in 1936 by the Bally Manufacturing Company: the bumper and electric scoring.
The Bally BUMPER (1936) introduced for the first time pinball bumpers. They consisted of coiled springs that gave the ball the exciting ability to rapidly bounce around the playfield as it went from one spring bumper to the next. Just as ingenious though, Bally added a simple electric switch to the bumper springs that would be triggered each time the ball hit them. The triggered switch was connected to the first electric scoring circuitry called a "totalizer," which projected the score number onto a glass on the backbox. No longer did the players have to manually add up their scores by counting the values of the scoring holes that the balls fell into.
Over time, both the bumper and the scoring mechanism evolved to the types seen here, towards the end of the Electro-Mechanical era.
Harry Williams (while working for Pacific Amusements) invented the tilt mechanism in 1932. The idea behind the mechanism was to stop people from lifting and moving the machine, so they could "win" at it. Another milestone for pinball history; since without it, the newer machines would never have gained their popularity as a game of skill. The TILT mechanism solved the problem of cheating. TILT mechanisms include:
Plumb Bob Tilt
and weighted tilts such as slam, playfield and backbox tilts.
Baseball-themed machines became popular in the mid 1930s. Penny Arcade games used a bat to launch balls into a scoring mechanism. Pinball followed with a bat used to hit a pitched ball across the playfield to score runs. These batting mechanisms were the forerunner of the pinball flipper.
D. Gottlieb & Co.'s 1947 "HUMPTY DUMPTY" was the first pinball machine to use flippers.
Invented by Harry Mabs, the machine had six flippers - three to a side. This innovation gave players the ability for the first time to keep the ball in play and added a considerable measure of skill to playing pinball.
The marketing slogan for Humpty Dumpty immodestly announced that its "Sensationally New Player Flipper Bumpers" were the "Greatest Triumph in Pin Game History", and history has proved the slogan right.
The repositioning of the flippers at the bottom of the pinball playing field is credited to that legend of pinball lore, Steve Kordek. As the story is told, Mr. Kordek was assigned the responsibility for designing the playfield for the 1948 Genco game "Triple Action." However, his budget only allowed him to use two electrically powered flippers and he ended up placing them in their now classic position at the bottom of the machine.
Games of Chance
Whether pinball is a game of chance is a question that has plagued Pinball since it’s beginning. In order to get an idea of the context for the dispute, we need to go back in time. Games of chance have been around as long as the human race. For over 10,000 years California Indians have played “handgames”. This is a type of gambling, which involves two teams. As one team tries to disguise the location of the “bones” while singing, the other team tries to guess not only who holds them, but in which hand is the marked one. Fake passing and false moves are made to confuse the opposition. When the side with the bones stops singing, a player on the other side takes a guess. Counting sticks were passed from team to team until one team finally won. These games often lasted for days. No wonder they called their celebrations a “big time”.
With the advent of the industrial age and the coin mechanism, it was only a matter of time until someone invented a mechanical gambling game. And so in 1899, in San Francisco, Charles Fey developed the “nickel in the slot” machine – the Liberty Bell. While this was not the first slot machine, what was unique about this machine was that it was the first to pay out rewards. In the 20’s, David Rockola developed the idea of a “jackpot”, which would dump a container of money when three “bar” symbols were lined up. His company, Rock-ola Manufacturing Company of Chicago (who manufactured scales) began producing jackpot fronts as an add-on accessory to the slots. Note the roll mint vendor on the side of the machine on the right. To get around the gambling restrictions, machines often had mint or gum vendors, so that it could be seen in the eyes of the authorities as “value received for money spent”.
On January 17, 1905, Charles A. Brewer and Clinton G. Scannell of Chicago, IL, received a patent for a "Vending Device" which was a punchboard. This was a “lottery game”, available in a neat, portable form, which the public took to rapidly. Using a key, patrons punched out small slips of paper to see if they won the advertised prizes. Many scams abounded in the early days. Their use continued into the 1960’s.
Given people’s interest in Horse Racing it was no surprise that someone would invent an indoor game version. In France a large 8 foot round mechanical horse race game is shown above, dated about 1900. Smaller mechanical versions with coin slots were invented in America.
The OFFICIAL SWEEPSTAKES, manufactured by Rockola in 1933 was such a game. To counter the notion that it was only a gambling machine, some models dispensed gumballs.
Between the years 1934 and 1946, Pace - Evans manufactured an incredibly complicated horse race game called PACES RACES. The early ones were entirely powered by air, much like a player piano - with bellows supplying the air! Later the design was changed to one with electric components. The player bet on one or more of the seven horses and then pushed a button and the race began. The odds wheel spun. Upon completion of the race, the game paid out in a hidden drawer.
Pinball Plays the Horses
Inevitably, pinball manufacturers followed suit and started to design and manufacture “horse racing themed” pinball games. The first ones were payout machines, obviously used for gambling.
Once pinball manufacturers broke away from that negative image, they started releasing “skill flipper games” with the same theme. Some examples of these are, SPARKPLUGS (Williams) 1951, DAFFY DERBY (Williams) 1954, DERBY DAY (Gottlieb) 1956, and HAYBURNERS (Williams) 1960.
Around 1900, small desk-top machines appeared called “trade stimulators”. These took the form of everything from mechanical card games, penny flips, cigarette vendors, dice rollers to spinners. As laws toughened, these games often incorporated a vending mechanism usually dispensing a gumball or roll of mints. These games did not pay out; the winner had to show the winning combination to the store clerk or barkeep in order to receive the dividends – in the form of cash, cigars or free drinks. These cool little games are very collectable, and there are literally hundreds of models.
Card - Themed Pins
In the 1930’s there were manufacturers converting BAFFLE BALL games to card games like HIT THE DECK. This is the beginning of how the early history of Pinball caused the public sentiment to regard it as a form of gambling. Take for example one store owner’s surprise when at the end of the first day, he opened the machine, took out the cash box and counted $14. Remember that an average daily wage at that time was three dollars! These machines often paid the entire month’s rent.
Card-themed pinball games were a natural. Over time, dozens were produced. They were hugely successful, drawing on people’s love to play cards. Subconsciously people associated card pins with gambling. Perhaps this helps explain why the skeptics thought Pinball was a game of chance.
Roulette, a game which was seen in the “Palais Royal” in Paris in 1796, evolved to today’s game of chance. Once again, in America, mechanical versions were developed, operated by a coin in the slot. The very first slot machines were large cabinets with one spinning Roulette wheel.
The machine to the left, ROULETTE was made by Caille in 1904. Mills followed with a miniature game in 1926, appropriately named MIDGET.
This bagatelle modeled after the Bally SKIPPER, appeared in 1933, with two roulette wheels and slot machine-like symbols, with payouts made over the counter. No doubt about the use of this game – it was strictly for gambling!
The Captive Ball Spinner, invented by Norm Clark, was the first use of a roulette wheel in a pinball game, as seen in William’s 1966 EM game A-GO-GO.
It is a scoring device consisting of a large metal wheel and a small steel ball enclosed in an area not accessible by the ball in play. The wheel has small trap holes all along its outside edge. When activated, the wheel spins around its central axis, causing its captive ball to randomly roll around with it. The wheel stops abruptly, and the rolling ball falls into one of the trap holes to award the indicated hole value.
“Payout” Pinballs (gambling pins)
In 1933, Bally came out with ROCKET. It used electricity from "dry cell" batteries to power a mechanism which paid out coins directly to the player if he shot a ball into the proper holes on the playfield.
The Jennings SLICKER is a similar payout game, developed after regular electricity was applied to pinball.
Pin game design began to split in two directions; "payouts", and "novelty" games. Manufacturers began to put out “payout” pinballs, in addition to their "novelty" games. Payout pinballs were indeed big business in those years.
Many of the payout games only offered the player one ball per game and became known as "one- balls".Pamco BALLOT is an example.
The payout pinball gave the slot machine operator another type of game to operate, probably bringing in some new players who wanted to gamble but felt that the slots were too 'fixed' in the operator's favor. These people probably thought, "at least with these pin games I have a chance to use my skill to increase my chances of winning”. Fat chance.
The prevalence of the "one-ball games" at that time, which were used almost exclusively for gambling, led to increased pressure by anti-gambling forces against pinball games in general. The increase in the "skill factor" in pinball play resulting from the introduction of the flipper gave the pro-pinball forces a new "weapon" to use to defend "amusement pinball" in the courts. It could now be argued that "flipper pinball" was more of a game of "skill" than of "chance", an argument that was much more difficult to support before the flipper came along.
Some games were even timed, as can be seen in these instructions above.
Another event occurred in 1935 with the introduction of "free games" to pinball design. Bill Belluh, who worked for Harry Williams invented and patented a device called the "free-play coin mechanism" which allowed a player after making a certain high score in a game, to restart the game without inserting a coin; thus awarding him with a "free game".
So by the end of the Forties we had the "one-balls" as the primary gambling pins on the one hand, and the new "amusement flipper games", with their increased "skill factor", on the other. Of course, the ever present "knock-off button" still remained on many flipper machines allowing them to also be used for gambling, if desired. This was a hidden button which allowed the operator to reset the number of free games after the player was paid off.
The Mills “One-Two-Three” not only had slot machine reels, but also a hidden drawer at the bottom in which payoffs were made.
Lou Walcher, owner of the large San Francisco coin machine distributorship, Advance Automatic Sales, had an idea for a new type of pingame which used 5 balls ("one-balls" were definitely out) and which scored replays by lighting numbers in a given pattern. He then challenged the industry to design games using his new idea. As a result the first "in-line" or "bingo" type pingames came into being.
Bally's entry into this new field of games was BRIGHT LIGHTS, which had a playfield about the size of a "one-ball" and six 5 by 5 cards.
Before very long, these games, known as “BINGOS” were also being challenged in court as being "gambling devices" primarily due to the fact that they had no flippers (not much "skill factor") and because a player could win large numbers of replays which, in most locations, were paid off in cash by the proprietor.
United’s MANHATTAN Bingo Pin. Note the insanely complicated mechanical scoring apparatus in the back-box!
Pinball is corrupting our children!
Source:Oct 1957 - Better Homes and Gardens
The Opposition Heats Up
From the beginning of pinball in the early 1930s, a recurring problem encountered by the pinball industry was the anti-gambling forces. Because of the preponderance of Slot Machines, trade stimulators and other gambling devices, many people opposed to gambling were suspicious of ALL coin-operated devices. As a result, for many years to come, pinballs had to be defended as being amusement and not gambling devices.
Given the use of pinball as gambling games during the 1930’s it is no wonder that the pinball manufacturers had an uphill climb to convince the authorities that there were people who just wanted to play pinball for fun.
One must realize though that many pinball parlors, bowling alleys and bars were seedy and prone to be habited by low life people, who in addition to gambling were casting bets on the side.
This is a far cry from the innocent image of couple of amusement games in a miniature golf course, at a corner store or at a Penny Arcade in rural America.
Slot machine raids were often conducted as media events. The press was pre-invited so the politicians could get maximum publicity.
Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia of New York had a passion for this,
and the largest of all such events occurred on October 13, 1934, when a barge of slots were towed to sea to meet a watery grave. Attorney General Earl Warren began a crime-busting attack in 1939 by serving notice on “off-shore” gambling ships. Raids on these “floating casinos” netted hundreds of machines.
Taking his cue from this, Pinball machines were officially banned in New York by Mayor LaGuardia on January 21, 1942. He declared them to be a game of luck, and not a game of skill. As a publicity stunt, he smashed up a large number of confiscated games.
Probably though, the biggest single blow to the "gambling industry" in the U.S. came about in 1950 with the passage by Congress of the Johnson Act. That law banned inter-state shipment of "gambling devices" except to states in which the device was legal. This was quite a deterrent to the manufacturers and distributors of such devices to providing them to illegal, or even questionably legal, areas. The Johnson Act also had its effect on "flipper games". Two characteristics used to define "gambling features" in coin machines, which showed up in many laws, were "a button to cancel free-game credits" and "a meter to indicate the number of free games so canceled." In 1950 almost all flipper pinballs had these two features, so when the Johnson Act came along pinball manufacturers knew these features had to be eliminated from flipper games lest their shipment be banned by the new "law of the land".
Meanwhile Back at the Ranch
Despite the opposition in the anti-gambling camps, the pinball designers went forward with their mission: to make the game even more fun to play.
In 1954, Gottlieb released SUPER JUMBO, the first multiple player pinball machine.
In 1956, the first “multiball” featured game was released with Bally’s BALLS-A-POPPIN.
In 1957 the first use of a "match" bonus feature in pinball was introduced. This is a number which is produced at random after the game is over, which is shown in the backglass. If it matches the last digit in the final score, either a free game or credit is earned.
In 1960 Alvin Gottlieb, who was now working at the plant, had an idea for a new type of flipper game which did not give replays at all, but still provided a "challenge" to the player and an opportunity to "earn" something for his skill at the game. His idea was to give "free balls", rather than "free games", for the player attaining certain scores on the machine. After all, it would be almost impossible for a player to "sell" an extra ball to another player.
Alvin's idea, after the design was perfected by Gottlieb's ace designer Wayne Neyens, became the first of the so-called "Add-A-Ball" games. The company decided to call this game FLIPPER to strengthen in people's minds its identity as a "flipper skill game" and further indicate that it had no connection with the notorious "bingo" machines which had no flippers.
This game, and the many "Add-A-Balls" which followed over the years, had a ball counter which could indicate up to ten balls. At the start of a game five balls were indicated, one being subtracted as each ball was played. When the counter reached zero the game was over. If, however, the player reached one of the pre-set high scores or specials, the counter was incremented by one giving the player an additional ball to play. These new games won acceptance in many states and localities where "replays" had been outlawed, and states such as New York became known as "Add-A-Ball territories". Often a game would be designed and issued with one version as a “free play” type, and another version as an “Add-A-Ball”. For example, SING-ALONG is the free play version and MELODY is the “Add-A-Ball version.
In 1962, Williams introduced the first drop target in VAGABOND.
In 1968, the first modern three inch flippers were introduced by Williams on HAYBURNERS II.
In 1975, the first solid-state, or electronic pinball machine, SPIRIT OF ‘76, was introduced by Mirco. It marked the beginning of the switch from electro-mechanical machines to electronics-based pinball games.
In 1976, the first widely available solid state pinball machine was introduced by Bally and was called FREEDOM. Also, THE ATARIANS was introduced by Atari. The long-time pinball machine manufacturer, Chicago Coin, made it’s last game. The company was taken over by Sam Stern and renamed "Stern Electronics". Gottlieb was sold to Columbia Pictures.
Showdown in Court
In 1976, the New York City pinball ban was overturned. The coin-operated amusement lobby (which represented the pinball industry) eventually succeeded in earning a City Council hearing to re-examine the long-standing ban. Their strategy: Prove that pinball was a game of skill, not chance, and thus should be legal. To do this, they decided to call in the best player they could find in order to demonstrate his pinball wizardry—a 26-year-old magazine editor named Roger Sharpe. Fearful that this hearing might be their only shot at overturning the ban, the industry brought in two machines, one to serve as a backup in case any problems arose with the primary machine. Suspicious that the pinballers had rigged the primary machine, one particularly antagonistic councilman told them that he wanted them to use the backup. This presented a problem: While Sharpe was intimately familiar with the first-choice game (an EL DORADO), he had never played the backup. As he played the game, surrounded by a huddle of journalists, cameras, and councilmen, he did little to impress City Council's anti-pinball coalition. So he made a final Hail Mary move that, to this day, he compares to Babe Ruth's famous called shot in center field. He pulled back the plunger to launch a new ball, pointed at the middle lane at the top of the playing field, and boldly stated that, based only on his skill, he would get the ball to land through that middle lane. He let go of the plunger and it did what he said. Almost on the spot, the City Council voted to overturn the ban. Who knows what would have happened if he had missed!
Credit is hereby extended to the following people, web sites and books whose research on this subject helped me to compile this presentation: Russ Jensen, Michael Schiess, BMI Gaming, Pinballers.com, Internet Pinball Database, Pinnovations, Pinball Fixers Pty. Ltd., “Slot Machines” by Marshall Fey, “Guide to Vintage Trade Stimulators” by Richard M. Bueschel, “The Pinball Compendium - EM Era” by Michael Shalhoub, and others not mentioned but well appreciated.
- Warren Haack, El Granada, Calif.