Pinball in America

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

The Strong National Museum of Play

The Strong National Museum of Play

Pinball Playfields Exhibit Photograph (2016) by The Strong National Museum of PlayThe Strong National Museum of Play

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.

Improvements in Bagatelle U.S. Patent Drawing (1871)Original Source: Courtesy of Google Patents


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.

Whiffle Pinball Game (1931) by Automatic IndustriesThe Strong National Museum of Play


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.

Values Service Pin Games Advertisement (1932) by Values ServiceThe Strong National Museum of Play


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.

Ballyhoo Flyer (1932) by Midwest Novelty Mfg. Co.The Strong National Museum of Play


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.

World's Fair Jig-Saw Pinball Game (1933) by Rock-ola Manufacturing Co.The Strong National Museum of Play


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.

Contact Senior Pinball Game (1933) by Pacific Amusement Manufacturing Co.The Strong National Museum of Play


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.

Bumper Pinball Machine detail (1936) by Bally Manfufacturing Co.The Strong National Museum of Play


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.

New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia Knocks Over a Confiscated Bally Bumper Pinball Machine (1942)The Strong National Museum of Play


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.

America Needs Your Scrap Rubber Poster (1942) by U.S. Government Printing OfficeThe Strong National Museum of Play


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.

Williams Dynamite Playfield Design Drawing (1946) by Williams Manufacturing Co. (Drawn by Harry Williams)Original Source: From the Williams Pinball Playfield Design Collection at The Strong


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.

Humpty Dumpty Pinball Machine (1947) by D. Gottlieb & CoThe Strong National Museum of Play


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.

Triple Action Pinball Machine (1948) by GencoThe Strong National Museum of Play


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.

Super Jumbo Flyer (1954) by D. Gottlieb & Co.Original Source: Internet Pinball Database


“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.

Friendship 7 Promotional Photograph (1962) by Williams Electronic Manufacturing Co.Original Source: From the Steve Kordek Coin-op Flyer and Catalog Collection at The Strong


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.

The Spirit of '76 Flyer (1975) by Mirco Games, Inc.The Strong National Museum of Play


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.

Wizard Flyer (1975) by Bally Manfufacturing Co.Original Source: From the Steve Kordek Coin-op Flyer and Catalog Collection at The Strong


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.

"Sometimes Bigger is Best" Advertisement Proof (1977) by Atari, Inc.Original Source: From the Atari Coin-op Divisions Collection at The Strong


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.

Roger Sharpe Demonstrating Pinball at the April 1976 New York City Council Meeting (1976) by Photograph by James HamiltonThe Strong National Museum of Play


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.

Hercules Photograph (1979) by Atari, Inc.Original Source: From the Atari Coin-op Divisions Collection at The Strong


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.

Harlem Globetrotters Flyer (1979) by Bally Manufacturing Co.Original Source: From the Steve Kordek Coin-op Flyer and Catalog Collection at The Strong


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.

Dolly Flyer (1979) by Bally Manfufacturing Co.Original Source: From the Steve Kordek Coin-op Flyer and Catalog Collection at The Strong


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 Flyer (1979) by Williams Electronic Manufacturing Co.Original Source: From the Steve Kordek Coin-op Flyer and Catalog Collection at The Strong


“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.

Firepower advertisement (1980) by Williams Electronics, Inc.Original Source: The Strong


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.

Black Knight: Limited Edition Pinball Machine (1981) by Williams Electronics, Inc.The Strong National Museum of Play


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.

Hyperball Flyer (1981) by Williams Electronics, Inc.The Strong National Museum of Play


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.

High Speed Flyer (1986) by Williams Electronics, Inc.The Strong National Museum of Play


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.

The Addams Family Pinball Machine (1991) by Midway GamesThe Strong National Museum of Play


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.

Photo of Director of Game Design Steve Kordek standing behind one of the last Star Wars: Episode I machines on the assembly line (1999) by Photograph by Duncan BrownThe Strong National Museum of Play


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.

PlayStation 4 The Pinball Arcade (2012) by Farsight Studios | Alliance Digital Media (Publishers)The Strong National Museum of Play


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.

The Wizard of Oz Flyer (2013) by Jersey Jack PinballThe Strong National Museum of Play


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.

Game of Thrones Flyer (signed by designer Steve Ritchie) (2015) by Stern PinballThe Strong National Museum of Play


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.”

Credits: Story

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

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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