The Complete History of Pinball Machines

A close-up of the play field of a modern pinball machine with many lights, mechanical parts, and sounds effects.

Bright lights, digital sound effects, and the frantic clang of flippers smacking metal - most of us know the sights and sounds of pinball. It’s a game that’s so iconic and so mesmerizing, it has captured the imagination of people of all ages for decades. 

As we enter into the second decade of the 21st century, arcades are seeing a revival in the form of barcades and family entertainment venues. While many people think of pinball as a throwback to the early arcades of the 70s and the digital decadence of the 80s, most don’t realize how rich and storied the history of pinball actually is.

So, let’s take a look back through the long history of a game that has permeated our culture for generations!

Pinball’s Ancestor: Bagatelle

An early ancestor to pinball is another table game called bagatelle. Similar to bowling or billiards, bagatelle challenged players to use a cue stick to knock a number of balls passed wooden pins and into holes. Players lost points for each pin they knocked down. 

Throughout the late 1700s and early 1800s, bagatelle would become increasingly popular, spreading from France into the U.K. and then into the United States. Over time, the game evolved: the table shrunk, its pins were fixed to the table, and some versions even added challenge with an upward tilt to the playfield.

As time went on, a game completely separate from bagatelle emerged. This version became further miniaturized, making it more practical as a tavern or pub game. Eventually, this gave way to the widely popular “ball shooter” game - the grandfather of modern pinball.

“The Ball Shooter”

In 1869, Montague Redgrave, a British inventor, moved to the United States and began manufacturing bagatelle tables in Cincinnati, Ohio. In 1871, Redgrave invented a device known as a “Ball Shooter.” Receiving U.S. Patent #115,357 for what Redgrave called "Improvements in Bagatelle". The Ball Shooter would bridge the gap between bagatelle and early pinball.

Using a spring launcher, players could shoot balls with a specific, controlled amount of force, in an attempt to launch them into designated score pockets. This version of the game was also made small enough to play atop a table or a bar counter. It also started a trend of metal pins and smaller marble balls.

The Invention of The First Pinball Machine

The invention of modern pinball is widely considered to have occurred in 1932 by Raymond Maloney. It was in 1932 that Maloney, a distributor of table games, was unable to secure stock of the then popular “Baffle Ball”. Instead, Maloney decided to found Lion Manufacturing and produced his own game: “Ballyhoo”.

“Ballyhoo” was the first coin-operated pinball game. The game was rudimentary by modern pinball standards. It lacked bumpers, flippers, or a hole at the bottom of the playfield. However, “Ballyhoo” was a leap forward by the standards of early 1930’s games: it greatly expanded the playfield, increased the number of pockets, and even included a free game pocket. As a result, “Ballyhoo” was an instant success.  

The “Ballyhoo” pinball game sold incredibly well, with Maloney selling around 50,000 units. Upon the success of “Ballyhoo”, Maloney changed the name of his young company from Lion Manufacturing to the Bally Manufacturing Corporation. Bally would become one of the earliest and largest American manufacturers of pinball machines.

It’s Electric! The Arrival of Electro-mechanical Pinball Machines

Pinball rose in popularity throughout the 1930s. As a result, over 100 manufacturers of pinball machines sprung to life by the end of 1932. Early competition was fierce. To stand out, the top pinball manufacturers continued to modify the game in a number of ways. The most exciting change was the addition of electricity.

A close-up of the play field of a vintage pinball machine.

In 1933, the first electro-mechanical pinball machines were manufactured. The first battery powered machine, “Contact”, was invented by Harry Williams (who would later start Williams Manufacturing) for the Pacific Amusements company.

“Contact” used an electronic solenoid to propel the player’s ball and another solenoid was used to sound a bell whenever the player scored. By 1934, other manufacturers were following suit and many machines were redesigned to use electrical outlets. The incorporation of electro-mechanical features allowed the addition of lights, sounds, and even music.

The Introduction of Flippers

Electricity allowed pinball manufacturers to wow players with exciting new features. In 1947, pinball manufacturer Gottlieb unveiled “Humpty Dumpty.” It revolutionized the game of pinball by introducing a now standard, and iconic, electro-mechanical feature: the flipper.

“Humpty Dumpty”, however, was still vastly different from later pinball games. While two flippers would become the standard, “Humpty Dumpty” featured six electrical flippers. “Humpty Dumpty”’s flippers (which faced outwards) allowed skilled players to now keep the ball in play for longer and build their scores.

It wasn’t until the early 1950s, after the release of Steve Kordek’s “Triple Action”, that two flippers were introduced and would become the norm for pinball. 

The Outlaw Decades: Pinball Becomes Illegal

From the early 1940s to as late as the mid-1970s, pinball was illegal in many of America’s largest cities: New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles among the most prominent.

Before the addition of flippers in 1947, pinball was a much different game. With little to no skill involved, it was viewed as a game of chance. The ball and how it bounced off of pins and across the playfield was outside of the players control. Like many other games of chance, players, and even spectators, gambled on the games. Players were often rewarded with prizes, ranging from free games and chewing gum to tokens that could be exchanged for cash or expensive jewelry.

As a result, early pinball gained notoriety as a gambler’s game. It would even become associated with Chicago’s mob scene. This dark association came to a public head on January 21st, 1942, when New York City Mayor, Fiorello LaGuardia, officially banned pinball machines in public areas and businesses. Soon, other major cities followed New York City. Many cities either outright banned pinball or barred children from playing it. It would take three decades for pinball to re-emerge as a legitimate game.

First, in 1974, the California Supreme Court passed a ruling which stated pinball was a game of skill rather than a game of chance. Upon its ruling, the court decided to overturn its prohibition in the state. In the years that followed, other cities, including New York, lifted their bans of pinball. 

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The Arcade Golden Age

As pinball re-emerged as a once again legitimate pastime, the world of electronic amusements was about to change. Advancements in solid state electronics made many electro-mechanical features antiquated. Microprocessors and circuit boards soon paved the way for a digital pinball revolution. And the timing couldn’t be more perfect.

In the early '70s, games like “Pong”, “Space Race”, and “Tank” jump-started a new phenomenon: video game arcades. Of course, they weren’t yet called video games, but soon arcades began to spring up across the U.S. and around the globe. Right around the midpoint of the decade, Gottlieb released “The Spirit of 76”. Released to celebrate the bicentennial of the United States, “The Spirit of 76” was the very first solid-state electronic pinball machine. Soon, other solid-state pinball machines followed, and eventually microprocessors, circuit boards, and digital scoreboards and sound effects became the standard.

Pinball Machines Enter The Digital Era

The 1980’s brought even more digital excitement as arcades became a massive pop culture phenomenon. As computer games and arcade machines continued to evolve, so too did pinball.

During the 1980's, pinball manufacturers began incorporating many modern technological changes. Pinball became increasingly advanced, using additional computing resources. This allowed machines to feature full soundtracks, elaborate lighting effects, and increasingly complex backbox animations. In many ways, this helped to make the pinball experience difficult to replicate virtually, in turn helping to increase its longevity and survival through upcoming downturns.

Despite the video game crash of the later '80s, pinball remained popular. Within the first years of the 1990s, pinball manufacturers saw new highs in game sales. New manufacturers even entered the market, like Capcom Pinball. However, this prosperity didn’t last.  

By 1996, interest in pinball waned. As a result, large pinball manufacturers like Alvin G., Capcom, and Gottlieb closed shop. By 1997, only two remained: Williams and Sega Pinball. In 1999, Gary Stern purchased Sega Pinball, thus founding Stern Pinball. Finally, in 2000, Williams withdrew from the pinball market entirely, leaving only Stern as the sole manufacturer of new, original pinball machines.

Pinball Today

While it may fall short of its once monumental heights, pinball is still alive and well today. By the mid-2000s, a pinball revival began, with smaller independent pinball manufacturers designing and producing machines everywhere from the U.S. to Spain and Australia.

In 2013, Jersey Jack Pinball, Inc., located in New Jersey, U.S., released “The Wizard of Oz”, the first new US pinball machine not made by Stern Pinball since 2001.

Find Your Dream Pinball Machine

Whether you’re new to pinball or a life-long fan, M&P Amusement is here to help you live your dream of owning your own pinball machine. Browse through a selection of new pinball machines for the latest in pinball technology. Or shop our wide selection of used pinball games to capture that retro vibe. Look to bulk order or need a machine serviced? Give us a call at (717) 887-5293! Our team is ready to help with your pinball needs!

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