An Incomplete History and Evolution of Pinball Machines
This article would be lying, if it claimed to be able to write a complete history and evolution of pinball machines in such a short space online. Although the reader will be asked to suspend their belief and recognize what level of content is trying to be truly achieved herein. The pinball machine is an important step in the world of gaming, high technology, and entertainment. Let alone it maybe one of the great innovations of the 20th century.
In the most basic sense, pinball machines are coin-operated arcade style games with players scoring points by shooting metal orbs (or pinballs) onto an incline raised playing field. The game involves hitting special targeted areas while players avoid losing their pinballs at the far end of the inclined pathways. Yet the modern version of the pinball machine has much older roots in history.
Improvements In Bagatelle
A British inventor named Montegue Redgrave applied for US Patent #115,357 for the above mentioned upgrade to the game Bagatelle in 1871. Redgrave too the table and ball game and patented changes that would pave the way for pinball machines. His patent called for a coiled spring, a plunger, making the large bagatelle balls into marbles, adding a playing field with an incline, and making the entire game smaller. All these would be features bagatelle would have in common with modern pinball machines.
The Earliest Countertop Machines
The first pinball machines became popular games during the Depression era in America. They were a cheap form of entertainment and did not have flippers yet, instead built in plungers were used to shoot ball into the playing field. Players tried to aim at holes that scored various values of points. Even this early on, players would bang and shove the machines to influence game play. Games names like 'Bingo', 'Baffle Ball', and 'Bally Hoo' were big in 1931, before the onset of games attempting to beat the human influences of banging machines by hand.
First Mechanical Tilt Machines
These games would fight human tilting, but it would still not be until 1936 the term pinball became an official word. In 1933 the first attempted tile mechanism was built into a game called 'Brokers' Tip', although the real debut would be in a game called
'Advance' invented by Harry Williams in 1934. The tilt mechanism would be a directly aimed answer to the problematic game players who shook and lifted machines to get high scores. During this same transition came the first battery operated machines in 1933, followed by the first redesigned electric powered machines in 1934. Innovator Henry Williams can also be credited for these creative additions allowing for new sounds, lights, music, a back lighted glass framing, and many new features. Hence the pinball machine was officially born.
Scoreboards, Flippers, and Bumpers
Backtracking a bit, the first pinball bumper was invented officially in 1937 in the game 'Bally Hoo'. The flipper came from a man named Harry Mabs and debuts in 1947 with a game called 'Humpty Dumpty'. The game utilized six flippers, or three on either side. Introducing flippers added new levels of skill and control for players of pinball machines. At this same time period, pinball was banned in many parts of the country, the opposition believing it toe be a form of gambling. It would be three decades until all pinball bans would be revoked. During that time, a game called 'Spot Bowler' added the final key piece of hardware to form the modern pinball machine, the scoreboard. Now pinball machines would enter their new incarnations as a historic game of devotion for players in the 20th century.
Three Decades of Innovations
The pinball machines of the 1950s introduced important innovations, such as scoreboard shows from behind the glass and the first two player game machines. This brought forth the full player experience offered but not yet available with the innovations of the 1940s. Then in the 1960s Steve Kordek invented the drop target, multi-ball playing games, and he is also credited with a repositioned layout for the flipper mechanisms at the bottom of the pinball field. These would be release with his games 'Vagabond' in 1962 and 'Beat the Clock' in 1963. Additionally the first digital scoring pinball machines arrived with the release of 'Rally Girl' in 1966.
Sold State Electronic Pinball Machines
The Who's rock opera 'Tommy' had given pinball a worldwide infamous image, this lead to movie themed games like 'Wizard' in 1975. Such contracts brought bigger money into the pinball machine market and the expansion of gaming spread faster than ever. Today pinball designers give their games themes, narratives, and structure that is purely due to the change in marketing. In 1975 the first solid-state electronic pinball machine also was released, the 'Spirit of 76' by Micro. The modern customer base for all future pinball marketing was about to be born, and into the new generation would go the spoils.
Dot-Matrix Displays and Video Screens
The first prototype solid state pinball machine was actually made by a company called Williams Electronics, although that is not what they would be known for in the long run. Their great innovations would be to innovate on an idea from 1991 or taking the dot-matrix displays that some companies were experimenting with and created the early programming for the first pinball video screens. Williams Electronics made the whole industry shake in 1998, when they released the new Pinball 2000 series of pinball machines. Only two games were ever produced by Williams Electronics, 'Revenge From Mars' and 'Star Wars: Episode 1: The Phantom Menace'. The market wasn't big enough for the company and they shut down operations in 1999.
Not With a Bang, But a Whimper
As of that moment, versions of pinball machines began being sold which were completely software based. Oddly no other companies managed to survive in the market after all the history and evolution pinball machines had endured. So after 1999, the entire home and worldwide manufacturing of pinball machines would be left to the unwitting hands of a much smaller and lesser known company called Stern Pinball. And with that an era in human gaming history and the evolution of pinball technology ends, for practical purposes.
That is the short version of the pinball machines story.
Jessica Kane is a writer for The Pinball Company, the best online source for new, used, and refurbished pinball machines, arcade cabinets, and more!