Feb 27, 2016

Pinball in America

The Strong National Museum of Play

The Strong | National Museum of Play | Rochester, New York

The Strong's Pinball Collection
The Strong museum in Rochester, New York, houses the largest and most comprehensive collection of historical materials related to play, including hundreds of original arcade and pinball machines and the Williams Pinball Playfield Design Collection. Guests explore the rich electronic game history while viewing artifacts and playing video and pinball games in The Strong’s eGameRevolution and Pinball Playfields exhibits. This timeline explores key moments in pinball history.


British immigrant Montague Redgrave updates the 18th-century French bagatelle game by adding a spring-loaded ball shooter (or “plunger”) to start the action and a bell to make sounds. The new playing surface (or “playfield”) sets the stage for the coin-operated pinball games of the 1930s.


Carpenter Arthur Paulin and salesman Earl Froom create Whiffle, a coin-operated, glass-covered bagatelle-style game that re-circulates its balls after play. When millions of people delight in shooting marbles into scoring holes, dozens of companies produce pinball games of their own.


David Gottlieb releases Baffle Ball, the first mass-produced and mass-marketed pinball game. An improved version of an earlier game titled Bingo, Baffle Ball sells 50,000 units and establishes D. Gottlieb & Co. as a pinball-making powerhouse and Chicago as the center of the pinball universe.


The December issue of Ballyhoo humor magazine provides Gottlieb distributor Raymond Moloney the title and the colorful playfield for his 1932 game. The wildly popular Ballyhoo sells more than 50,000 units and helps popularize pinball with Americans suffering through the Great Depression.


David Rockola’s World’s Fair Jigsaw capitalizes on Americans’ contemporary craze for jigsaw puzzles and their fascination with the sights and sounds of the Chicago Centennial Exposition. The mechanical marvel outsells its predecessors, spurring pinball-makers to borrow pop cultural trends.


Pacific Amusement Manufacturing Co.’s Contact electrifies the pinball playing public. Designer Harry Williams ushers pinball into the electromechanical age with one of the earliest and most successful uses of dry cell batteries to power ball kickers, bell sounds, and a scoring system.


Bally Manufacturing Co.’s Bumper introduces one of the earliest electric coil scoring “bumpers.” It helps transform pinball from a static game in which the goal is to avoid pins and fill scoring holes to a game focused on bumping the ball across the playfield to score.


Responding to concerns about organized crime, gambling, and youth leisure time, New York City bans pinball. Other major cities such as Los Angeles and Chicago follow. The next year, New York mayor Fiorello La Guardia leads prohibition-style raids that destroy thousands of games.


Pinball production halts as the United States mobilizes for World War II. Gottlieb, Bally, Genco, and other game manufacturers convert their assembly lines to produce war materials, as Americans conserve fuel, rubber, and other resources for the war effort.


Pinball innovator Harry Williams’s Williams Manufacturing Co. produces its first new pinball machines, Suspense and Dynamite, as pinball flourishes during the post-World War II economic boom. Williams pinball designers create some of the most innovative games of the era.


Gottlieb pinball designer Harry Mabs changes pinball forever by adding six electromechanical flippers to Humpty Dumpty. The revolutionizing flippers provide skilled players with the ability to aim, fire, and control the ball as it moves across the board, making pre-flipper games obsolete.


Genco designer Steve Kordek places two flippers at the bottom of the playfield on Triple Action. Other manufacturers follow, leading to standardization of typical game features that allow players to transfer the eye-hand coordination and aiming skills they develop on one game to the next.


“It’s more fun to compete.” That’s Gottlieb’s slogan for Super Jumbo, the first multiplayer pinball machine to accommodate 1, 2, 3, or 4 players taking alternating turns. Pinball is no longer a strictly single-player game.


Americans and pinball manufacturers look to the stars as the nation ushers in the space age. Williams’s Friendship “7,” which takes its name from a space capsule, celebrates astronaut John Glenn’s daring February 1962 mission to orbit the earth.


As Americans celebrate the nation’s bicentennial, Mirco Games releases The Spirit of ’76, the first pinball machine powered by microprocessors. Although the lackluster game doesn’t sell well, it helps move the pinball industry toward making electronic or “solid state” games exclusively.


Rock band The Who’s pinball-themed rock opera turned film Tommy puts pinball back in the public imagination and leads Bally to create Wizard, the first pinball game based on a popular film license. The game proves wildly popular, and soon licensed themes will dominate the pinball industry.


Video game pioneer Atari enters the pinball industry with The Atarians. Although the company cannot compete with industry veterans Williams and Bally, Atari’s oversized games influence other manufacturers to produce their own “widebody” machines.


New York City ends its more than four decade ban on pinball after a pro-pinball lobby led by Roger Sharpe helps demonstrate that pinball is a game of skill rather than purely chance. Cities across the country lift similar bans.


Atari’s Hercules challenges players to try to wrap their arms around the world’s biggest commercial pinball machine. Players pound the massive wooden flippers to fire a pool cue ball across the imposing seven-foot-tall and eight-foot-long game.


Reflecting the influence of the Civil Rights Movement and changing social values, Bally produces Harlem Globetrotters, the first pinball game centering on African American sports celebrities. Two years later, Stern introduces a game featuring former boxing champion and activist Muhammad Ali.


Bally releases Dolly Parton, a game that celebrates the famous singer/songwriter and unlikely feminist icon. The next year Parton stars alongside actresses Jane Fonda and Lilly Tomlin in 9 to 5, a feminist satire about working secretaries.


“Gorgar Speaks!” That’s the slogan for Williams Gorgar, the first talking pinball machine. Its seven-word vocabulary, including “Me got you” isn’t always audible in noisy arcades, but the robot-like voice signals a new emphasis on digital voices and sound.


The success of the 1977 film Star Wars spurs manufacturers to create space war-themed games. Designer Steve Ritchie’s Firepower capitalizes on the trend, but the best-seller is also the first electronic pinball game with a “multiball” mode that fires three balls onto the table at once.


Williams unveils Black Knight to compete with the massively popular Pac-Man, Asteroids, and other video games. With a bi-level playfield connected by ramps and a “magna save” that uses electromagnets to stop the ball from draining off the playfield, Black Knight is the ultimate in pinball.


As video games force pinball machines out of arcades, pinball manufacturers attempt to push back. But Williams’s Hyperball (which gives players the opportunity to fire up to 250 3/4” pinballs per minute at targets) and Gottlieb’s video game/pinball hybrid Caveman fail to captivate players.


Williams designer Steve Ritchie’s High Speed epitomizes pinball’s new interest in storytelling. The game centers on Ritchie’s real life experience with a “high speed” police chase. Players respond and Williams sells more than 17,000 units even though video games now dominate arcades.


Designer Pat Lawlor’s Addams Family sells more than 20,000 games, making it the best-selling pinball machine of the electronic era and the epitome of the interactive toy-filled games that fuel the pinball renaissance of the early 1990s.


Williams tries to revive the ailing pinball industry with the video game hybrid Pinball 2000 platform that includes innovative games like Revenge From Mars and Star Wars Episode 1, The games sell moderately well but the company shuts down its pinball division.


Video game developer Farsight Studios’s The Pinball Arcade introduces a new generation of digital natives to pinball as millions play video game emulations of classic tables such as Black Knight (1980), FunHouse (1990), and Monster Bash (1998) on console and mobile gaming platforms.


Jersey Jack Pinball unveils the Light-emitting diode (LED) backglass on the company’s Wizard of Oz game. The high definition screen emphasizes the cinematic qualities of modern games based on popular films and television shows.


Stern Pinball, the largest and oldest pinball manufacturer in the world releases The Walking Dead. The next year, the company presents Game of Thrones. Both machines exemplify the industry’s focus on adapting mass cultural phenomena to appeal to new players and experienced “pinheads.”

The Strong National Museum of Play
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Pinball in America is produced by The Strong’s International Center for the History of Electronic Games.

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