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Pinball History Page

So why is it called Pinball?

The Ancestors of the modern pinball game were much like Pachinko machines. They were not upright like Pachinko machines, but they did have many pins and holes in the playfield. Balls came down from the top and scored varing amounts of points depending on which hole they eventually fell into. This is probably how the term pin-ball came about.

The Early Years

The coin-operated industry began in 1931 with the production of Ballyhoo. It was built by Raymond Maloney, who later founded the Bally manufacturing company. It was not until 1936, however, before the term "pinball" was coined. In 1934, the infamous tilt mechanism was devised. People realized they could manipulate the game to their advantage by shaking it, so manufactureres had to come up with a way to stop the cheating. Supposedly, one of the ideas that did not make it into production was pounding sharp pins or nails onto the side and bottom of the machine (this was quickly rejected on the assumption that players would get so mad that they would really inflict some damage on the machine.) One of the earliest implementations involved a ball on a pedestal that would fall off when the machine was moved around too much. On modern machines, there are two tilt sensors: the standard movement tilt and the slam tilt. Slam tilts are used to detect major abuse (such as slamming your hand into the front of the coin door or dropping the machine) and are just a couple of leaf switches that signal a slam when they touch each other. The movement tilt is detected by a pendulum and bob mechanism that moves around inside a ring. A tilt (or tilt warning) occurs when the metal pendulum rod touches the metal ring. A secondary system in many machines is a steel ball on a tilted track. If the game is lifted off the floor, the ball will roll backwards making the contact. World War II brought entertainment production to a screeching halt as all industry went towards the war effort.

1947 was the big year. Humpty Dumpty, the first game with flippers - was released by Gottleib. The flippers were not set up as we know them today, however. There were three set of two flippers located at three different spots going up the playfield. They were facing each other, as flippers do today, but the pivot point was at the bottom of the flippers. In January 1948, a company called Genco placed the flippers at the bottom of the playfield in their game Triple Action. The configuration was still a little unusual: the flippers were facing outward, not inward. The first game that had the flippers set up as we know and love them today was probably Spot Bowler, a 1950 Gottleib game. If you have not seen one of these older games, you might be surprised at the size of their flippers. They were about the size of two pinballs in length, much like some of the small flippers used in today's games (such as the leftside flipper on The Addams Family). It was not until 1968 that games started using the longer flippers on a regular basis, pioneered by Williams.

One of the darkest days in pinball history came about on January 21, 1942. Pinball was banned in New York City because it was viewed as a game of luck rather than a game of skill (ergo, playing pinball is gambling!). To "celebrate" the ban, Mayor Fiorello Henry LaGuardia (as in LaGuardia airport) smashed a number of machines in front of a largely supportive crowd. Los Angelos followed with a similar ban in 1949. The ban in Los Angelos ended in 1972, and in New York until 1976. Free games (replays, matches, etc.) Continue to be illegal in New York City to this day, although the law goes unenforced.

In 1960 the idea of an earnable extra ball first appeared in Gottleib's Flipper. This was done in response to the laws of many areas that made it illegal to award replays. During this time, two versions of the same game with similar names were made. One without the extra ball option and one with. One example is Gottlieb's Wild Wild West (without) and Lariat (with) from 1969.

Other interesting advances were with the targets on the playfield. In 1960, Williams introduced the moving target with Magic Clock. The first drop targets were also by Williams for Vagabond. Gottlieb introduced the in-line target banks in 1971 for their 2001. Between these years, Gottlieb also introduced the return lanes that would direct the ball back to the flippers on the right and left sides. This was first done on their Bank-A-Ball machine.

The next major change came in 1975. The first non-relay-based game, called Spirit of 76, was produced by Micro. It marked the beginning of the switch from electromechanical to solid state games. The first widely available solid state game (only 100 Spirit Of 76's were made, mostly due to an unattractive playfield) was Freedom from Bally in 1976. Many games in the 1976-1979 period were made in two versions (both solid state and electromechanical) as manufacturers refined the process of moving to the new technology. Examples of this are Bally's Mata Hari and Williams' Hot Tip. Atari's first machine in the market, Atarians, paved the way with wide-body machines. In 1979, the first talking game was produced. Gorgar was from Williams and was later followed by Bally's answer 1980 with Xenon. In the early 1980's, many games started using magnets to let their player try and save the ball (called magna-save by Williams). Black Knight and Jungle Lord are two good examples of this. Black Knight was also the first 2-level machine, followed one year later with Gottlieb's 3-level Haunted House. The next major revolution in pinball was not until 1991, when Data East came out with the first dot-matrix display in their game, Checkpoint. Starting around 1992, all games from all manufacturers have employed a dot-matrix display.

A full fusion of video and pinball was created with Pinball 2000 by Williams. The first of these was a new Revenge from Mars, followed closely by the movie adaptation of Star Wars. These machines smoothly overlaid video sequences to react to the contact of the pinballs when hidden targets were hit.

So Where are we today? Although the certainty of pinball in some form existing is there, who will make it is not. At the end of 1999, the last major manufacturer, Williams, closed their pinball division. Stern has made a comeback with the help of it's purchase of SEGA. Also, it has been rumored that previous Williams employees will band together and create a new company from this experience pool. In any case, the silver ball shoots out and rolls on.

Below, are lists by manufacturer of the machines from the late 40's until today. I am still looking for an Atari logo to use instead of simple text. I hope that a combination of the history above and the machine lists below will give my readers a good overview of the industry and the game.

Pinball Machines Manufactured

Bally Logo
Williams Logo
Gottlieb Logo
Stern Logo


Data East


I leave you with a last piece of advice. If a friend is in the middle of good game, don't tell him Mark Duke just walked into the arcade! -DN

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