March 1, 2019 to Present
“Slimy crews of tinhorns, well dressed and living in luxury on penny thievery,” sums up the opinion of pinball’s most vocal opponent, NYC Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia. He led the crusade to ban pinball in NYC and paved the way for similar bans across the nation. While shocking today, LaGuardia was not far off the mark in his belief that gambling and pinball were often one and the same. Organized crime, the Great Depression, and moral panic all factored into the early days of pinball. This exhibit explores the history of pinball, its roots in gambling and adult-oriented entertainment, and the social forces surrounding its explosive rise in popularity.
Birth of Pinball
Shortly after relocating to the United States in 1869, British-born inventor Montague Redgrave produced a miniature version of bagatelle - a French table game related to billiards - and established the basic play rules and appearance of the first pinball game.
Players competed by pulling and releasing Redgrave’s patented, spring-loaded plunger to shoot marbles up a chute to the top of the playfield where they fell through pins and into a variety of scoring holes. Totals were then tallied to determine the winner.
The M. Redgrave Bagatelle Company produced several versions of the games from the 1870’s through the 1890’s. Originally intended as an adult game, it was later made and sold as a children’s toy.
In the following decades, pinball (and later pachinko) would explode in popularity thanks to the innovations first established in Redgrave’s bagatelle.
A Game of Skill - The Birth of the Flipper
In the pinball games of the 1930's, players had little control over the ball aside from plunger shots and/or shaking the cabinet. This kept pinball largely a game of chance, and fueled its association with gambling. It wasn't until the invention of the flipper in 1947 by Harry Mabs that a new element of skill would enter
D. Gottlieb and Co. introduced the first flipper game with Humpty Dumpty in late 1947. The pinball industry immediately recognized the appeal of flippers, and within months every manufacturer was making them standard features on new games. The addition of a player-controlled device on the playfield dramatically influenced a game's outcome, and helped establish pinball as a game of skill.
This innovation aside, gambling was still very much at the center of many pinball games. While the flipper helped establish a new category of “novelty” pinball, many flipper games continued to offer replays that players could earn and redeem for cash.
One Two Three
Mills Novelty 1938
Mills Novelty Company was a major manufacturer of slot machines and amusements, and One Two Three leveraged that expertise in a pinball format. Partnering with slot machine inventor Charles Fey, Mills enjoyed massive success with their Liberty Bell slot machine. As pinball gained steady popularity, Mills moved to integrate the new format with their proven earners.
A stainless steel playfield and lighted backglass dazzled players, while the tumbler reels banked on the appeal of the slot machine. Available in both payout and replay versions, this game would have originally had an additional lighted box atop the backbox displaying the number of replays earned. Alternate versions featured fruit or tobacco-themed symbols on the reels.
A one ball game, the tumbler reels were triggered by striking the color coded bumpers. Two steel-capped spinners launched the ball back up the playfield, adding even more chance to the results. Payouts (or replays) were awarded by matching the symbols on reels. This may be the first use of what became the numbered score reel on pinball machines sixteen years later first introduced in 1954 on Gottlieb's "Jumbo".
While it’s maybe not surprising that players could wager on a pinball game among themselves, the way someone could collect on a win from an establishment isn’t necessarily as clear. Because the gambling side of pinball operated in a legal grey area, payouts manifested in a few different ways. Depending on the time and place some were more formal or obvious than others.
Purely Mechanical Pinball
The early pingames before the introduction of electricity were scored manually by simply counting up the balls in scoring pockets. Generally, a card would be found on the machine indicating the payout rate for a given score. The operator of an establishment would verify the score achieved and payout according to the card.
A great many games were produced with an internal mechanism similar to a slot machine that would automatically dispense a prize: anything from a mint, to a token, or simply cash. Most often the non-cash prizes could be exchanged for money as well. Sometimes the payout drawer was hidden inside the machine to make the gambling aspect a bit less conspicuous to the casual observer.
Free games were far and away the most common way to earn a payout in pinball. Much like the early mechanical games, a player would show the venue operator their earned replays and exchange them for cash. The operator would then press a knock-off button, returning the counter to zero. Bingo machines in particular usually had 3 digit replay counters, allowing a player to accumulate far more replays than they were likely to play off.
While the flipper helped introduce an element of skill to pinball, the gambling association did not immediately disappear. In 1950 Congress passed the Johnson Act, which banned interstate shipment of gambling devices (including repair parts, manuals, etc.) except to states in which the device was legal. Even still, Bally and other manufacturers found great success with bingo machines in the early 1950's. The Korpan Decision in 1957 specifically classified bingo machines as gambling devices.
Modeled after the popular chance game, players launched balls onto a playfield covered with numbered holes hoping to line up rows on an illuminated card. If a player accumulated a significant number of free game credits, they could ask the proprietor to cash out those credits. The operator would then push a “knock off” button that would count down all the credits and zero the game for use by the next player. Any credit counter with 3 digits is a fairly good indicator of a gambling machine.
Despite the Johnson Act, Korpan Decision, and many local bans, the game was simply too popular to effectively hold back. It thrived in the many states where machines were legal, and even those where they weren’t. Enforcement was uneven at best and police could not keep up with all the secret rooms and payola protecting the operators.
Over the years pinball has been described as evil, a tool from the devil, a waste of time, and a gateway to gambling. Below those descriptions lie an expression of social values and the individuals who hold them. Moral panics are often rooted in legitimate fears, but are exaggerated by sensationalized dangers. Regulation and enforcement often arise as an expression of political power or as a means of limiting behaviors considered off-limits in society.
Campaigns against pinball and gambling were bolstered by appeals to a specific view of morality. Fears around the influence of organized crime (itself a coded fear of newly arrived Italian immigrants), a public seduced into the horrors of gambling addiction, and children being tempted by forces they don’t understand all tell us something about American culture at that time, as well as the people who waged those campaigns.
The moral panic around pinball was not the first or last to grip American culture. Here are a few more examples of similar panics in 20th Century America.
Motion Picture Production Code, 1934
Also known as the Hays Code, after then MPPDA president Will H. Hays, the code laid out specific guidelines of morally acceptable portrayals and storylines in motion pictures for American Audiences.
Comics Code Authority, 1954
Formed in response to public outcry over content in comics, the CCA required comics contain no disrespect to established authority, gruesome illustrations, or the words horror or terror in the titles. The code further required that good triumph over evil in every circumstance.
Parental Advisory Sticker, 1985
Adopted by the RIAA in 1985 after pressure from the Parents Music Resource Center, the label was affixed to recordings containing material deemed unsuitable for children.
To understand the history of pinball and gambling, we need to consider several key factors simultaneously at work. In the first half of the 20th century, forces like organized crime, Prohibition, the Great Depression, and pinball are all influencing one another and having a great effect on American culture.
Prohibition solidified organized crime in America, providing a tremendous source of revenue for the mob. With the repeal of the 18th Amendment in 1933, those profits quickly dried up, leaving organized crime to concentrate on new money makers. Gambling and coin-operated machines were cash businesses, difficult to track and regulate by authorities. The rising popularity of pinball made it a natural choice for organized crime outfits.
At that same moment, the Great Depression was gripping America. Unemployment reached 24% and cheap entertainment, especially that with the possibility of a cash payout, was a welcome respite from everyday struggles. The popularity of pinball exploded.
Organized crime was dominating headlines, and Hollywood seized the moment with the era of the gangster film. Mobsters became folk heroes and rebels operating outside of a failed system, a storyline that many struggling Americans could identify with. After nearly a decade of alcohol prohibition, the transition from speakeasy to gambling hall was an easy one.
All of these lead us to the clash with pinball’s biggest opponent, Fiorello LaGuardia, and his campaign to rid New York of corruption, the mob, and pinball.
The most famous opponent of pinball was New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia. He had run on a ticket promising to “Clean up New York City,” and following his 1934 election quickly declared war on slot machines. Mafia gambling Kingpin Frank Costello reportedly had exclusive rights with the Mills Novelty Company for their gambling machines in the New York territory, and even started his own factory to supply the mints delivered in many payout games. After a successful campaign of raids and dumping thousands of confiscated devices into the Hudson from barges, LaGuardia turned his attention to pinball.
Despite his outsized personality and love of publicity, it’s fair to say LaGuardia's crusade was motivated by deep beliefs. He saw himself as a protector of a working class long abused by corrupt power brokers in New York City. In his eyes, gambling tempted desperate men, lured unsuspecting children, and encouraged widespread corruption. As New York's first Italian-American mayor, LaGuardia had a personal desire to break up organized crime and confront its widespread association with Italians.
With the entry of the United States in WWII, LaGuardia further characterized pinball as a waste of both time and precious resources. In 1942, he ordered the seizure of an estimated 12,000 pinball machines in the city. His skillful use of publicity made LaGuardia one of the most visible opponents of pinball and gave him the political leverage to enact a ban in New York that wouldn't be lifted until 1976.
Spotting a Cheater
Like most games, pinball has always had cheaters looking to beat the house. Given that gambling was a central part of early pinball, it’s not surprising that many of the innovations on those machines were there to thwart the dishonest player.
The simple addition of glass covering the playfield kept a player from moving the ball, while a copper-coated brass ball could prevent a magnet from altering its course. It was famed designer Harry Williams who, after observing players abusing his games, developed the quintessential pinball cheat detector, the tilt mechanism in 1933.
The earliest version of tilt detection involved a ball resting upon a post inside a metal cup. Too much movement and the ball rolled into the cup and completed a circuit, invalidating the player’s score. Additional mechanisms followed, including the pendulum tilt bob, slam switches and the roll tilt.
Today’s games still employ many of these devices, a testament to the clever design work of Harry Williams.
Stool Pigeon Tilt
A steel ball sits on the retractable center post. If the ball is shaken off the post, the circuit is closed and the game ends. Depositing another coin retracts the post and resets the ball.
A blade switch with a weight on one side is attached inside the machine. With a powerful enough strike, the weight will move and close the circuit and indicate a tilt.
A captive ball rests inside an inclined switch attached to the cabinet. If the machine is lifted, the ball rolls to the end and connects the circuit that declares it tilted.
A weighted pendulum is suspended inside the machine cabinet. At the bottom a metal ring surrounds a post extending from the bottom of the tilt bob. With a significant shake or bump to the machine, the post will contact the surrounding ring and trigger a tilt.
Researched and written by Chris Rummell and Michael Schiess