Sunday, August 16, 2009


Recently Dianne and I went to Las Vegas and visited the National Pinball Hall of Fame which is located in a downscale strip shopping center a couple of miles from the Strip. Essentially, it is an arcade filled with about 100 pinball machines, many of them antiques from the 1950's and '60's which one could play for a quarter each. We bought a roll of quarters and amused outselves for a couple hours on machines such as Playboy and Joker Poker.

Other games had adventure themes such as Western, sports (i.e. billiards, bowling and poker); and movies like Star Trek and Indiana Jones. The graphics on the backglass usually featured voluptuous young ladies and intrepid men. Years ago, as a college student in Champaign, Illinois, I spent as much time playing the pinballs at Kams or the Midway as I spent on my studies. At that time, each game cost a nickel. Now, you're talking 50 cents.

The pinball machine is a self contained box of solenoids, relays, switches, gates, blinking lights, bumpers, ramps, targets, etc. decked out in pretty colors and graphics, not to mention sound effects (literally bells and whistles) which beckons "Play me!". The playfield is covered by a transparent glass panel. The object of the game is to keep the steel ball in play as long as possible, hitting the various bumpers and targets to score as many points as possible to win replays (free games or extra balls).

In pinball jargon, some of the fun features for scoring points include the following:

BUMPERS: Round knobs which, when the ball hits, actively ejects the ball away.

SLINGSHOTS: Horizontal or vertical targets along the wall, usually above the flippers, which push the ball away.

RAMP: An inclined plane in which the flipper hits the ball into a mini playing field to score extra points.

TARGETS: Self explanatory, but includes stationary targets, bullseye targets, drop targets (drop down when ball hits to reveal other features of game); kicking targets (kicks ball away in opposite direction); and vari-targets (score different points depending on how hard the ball hits).

HOLES AND SAUCERS: Holes rack up points and gobble up the ball; saucers score the points and eject the ball or even direct the ball to another hole or saucer.

ROLLOVERS: Buttons on the playfield which score points when the ball rolls over.

SWITCHES AND GATES: Switches block off an area if the ball passes through; gates allow balls to come through one way but block the ball if it is going the other way.

For almost 80 years, pinball machine operators placed the devices in snack shops, drugstores and bars across America, corrupting several generations of young people. In many jurisdictions, such as Chicago and New York City, they were outlawed because they were considered games of chance rather than skill, and subject to gambling laws. The machines were big money makers for the establishments, in many cases generating more revenue than the underlying businesses. The store owners were usually "shocked" to learn that people used them for gambling.

The ban on pinball machines in Now York City was finally removed in 1976 when a young man named Roger Sharpe demonstrated his skill on the machine before a packed Manhattan courtroom, calling out what he was going to shoot for, and then proceeded to do so. Sharpe compared his shot to Babe Ruth's famous 1932 World Series home run in Chicago's Wrigley Field after allegedly pointing to where he was going to hit the ball. After NYC removed the ban, many other jurisdictions also did so. Just to cover themselves with the law, today's pinball machines are clearly labled, "For Amusement Only". For the record, Mr. Sharpe later acknowledged that his courtroom shot was a lucky one.

The game of pinball evolved from the French game of bagatelle created in the 1700's. In bagatelle, the player would shoot ivory balls with a cue stick up an inclined playfield, and as they came down, they would be deflected by strategically placed pins (hence, pinball). Eventually the balls would land in holes which carried different scores depending on their difficulty. The game was called bagatelle by the brother of King Louis XIV who owned the Chateau de Bagatelle where the game was demonstrated for French royalty. The game was brought to America by the French troops who fought in the American Revolution. It became extremely popular in America in the Nineteenth Century. Even President Abraham Lincoln played the game.

In 1871, British inventor Montague Redgrave significantly improved the game by replacing the cue stick with a coiled spring and a plunger device to hit the ball. It is still used in today's machines. A skilled player can pull the plunger and hit the ball with just the right amount of force to hit the intended targets on the playfield.

By the 1930's enterprising men like David Gottlieb fitted out bagatelle games with coin operating devices and placed them in business establishments. Gottlieb created the popular Baffle Ball game in 1931 which, for a penny, dispensed 5 to 7 balls. His company sold over 50,000 of the machines to businesses at $17.50 each. Despite the tough economic times, the games paid for themselves quickly.

Gottlieb couldn't make anough units to meet demand, and the next year one of his distributors, Ray Moloney started his own company to produce a game called Ballyhoo, named after a popular magazine. The game proved so popular that Moloney changed the name of his company to Bally Manufacturing Co.. Later the company expanded into other businesses like casinos and health clubs. You may have heard of it.

Another designer Harry Williams produced a game called Contact in 1933 which contained an electrically powered solenoid to propel the ball out of a bonus hole in the middle of the playfield. Williams evntually formed his own company, Williams Manufacturing Co. which is still in the business. These companies, as well as many other manufacturers of the devices were based in Chicago, which, ironically, had banned them. They shipped them all over the country and internationally where they found enthusiastic players.

Along about 1947, a new innovation was created to introduce the element of skill to the game. The game Humpty Dumpty added the flippers which, controlled by the player, are intended to kick the ball back to the top of the playfield and keep it in play longer. A skilled player, artfully using the flippers, could trap the ball or juggle it between the flippers, and accurately aim it at varying speeds at the targets and bumpers, rolling up the points toward a replay. Unfortunately for me, I was never skilled enough to win many replays, and I was told not to quit my day job to play pinballs.

Another feature, depending upon the game, is a ball lock in which two or three balls hit into a specific hole or target are locked up until another event occurs which releases them all onto the playfield. Try to keep 3 balls in play simultaneously with the flippers!

To keep the games honest, pinball machines have a tilt switch which shuts down the game if the player nudges or shakes the machine too vigorously. The tilt switch is a sensor in which a cone shaped bob is centered in an electrified steel ring--if the machine is hit too hard, the bob bumps against the ring, completing a circuit, thus shutting down the game. The machine operator can move the bob up or down to make it more or less sensitive. Experienced players will quickly learn how much force they can use to kick or pound the machine before it tilts.

For a list of virtually every one of the 5,000 or so pinball machines ever created, complete with color pictures, features, names of the creators, artists and manufactures, link to the Internet Pinball Machine Database (IPDB). If you're a pinball wizard, you'll be in for a treat!




Blogger robbie said...

I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don't know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


February 17, 2010 at 10:03 PM  

Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home