Pinball games evolved for only one reason. That was to take money through the coin slot. The manufacturers improved the design and appearance of every game to attract more and more players. Look at any flyer for any game (they were the advertising papers the manufactures produced to attract distributors to buy games). The one thing they all mention is profits. Moneymaker, big earner, money in the cashbox, profit proven, sensational earning power and many other promises of great profits were mentioned. The manufacturers were very good at making a game that let the players come close to beating the game, but rarely let them actually do so. That ensured another coin went through the slot, to give another chance beat the game this time. For home use, this is a very desireable quality. It makes sure that a game that is played regularly doesn't become boring. They also made them visually appealing, with very attractive lighting and wonderful art work, to attract players in the first place. This also makes them very suitable for home use. Having a piece of 1950s, 60s or 70s pinball art in the home is better than any picture on the wall. And they can be played as a bonus.
The pinball industry of the 1950s and 1960s made more money than the American film industry in the same period!
The history of pinball goes back at least a few hundred years. Simple games where the ball rolled down in to numbered hoops formed from arcs made of pins (hence the name 'pinball'). Where the balls landed was the score. These were purely games to play in the home, and the scores had to be worked out from the numbers marked on the arcs.
Things didn't really change until the early part of the twentieth century. Enterprising men began to make games that could be operated with a coin, and though they were purely mechanical, they became popular. They were located on shop counters, where a game could be had for a small coin. Some shop owners paid a prize each week for the highest score, maybe a bottle of soda or a pack of cigarettes. Slowly, the gambling aspect of them grew, and they became even more popular. These early games had no back box or legs, they simply sat on a counter top, to attract customers in to the shop. Simple electrical devices were soon added, battery powered at first, and from the wall socket a bit later. These games were lit and had playfield features that reacted to the ball. Scoring was added, and the back box was the ideal place to put it. These were small at first, but soon became as big as a modern game as the manufacturers and operators realised a few lights and a nice picture would attract more players. Bells were also added, to ring out when a player hit a scoring feature. All these games relied on the player to nudge them to try and send the ball to the required place. That needed controlling, because players were too keen in making the ball go where they wished. They were weighted down with bags of sand to prevent it, nails were inserted to stick down through the bottom of a game to try to stop overly keen lifting, kicking and nudging. One of the game designers, Harry Williams, later of Williams pinball, invented a way of turning off the game if the player was too enthusiastic. He called it the 'stool pidgeon'. It soon got known as the 'tilt', and the name has stuck ever since. In fact, Harry Williams was one of the great inventors of pinball design. He introduced many new features to the games, including the first use of a solenoid to kick a ball out of a hole. The game he used it on was called Contact.
In 1947, a gottlieb game designer named Harry Mabs added what were called 'flipper bumpers' to a game called Humpty Dumpty. We now know them simply as flippers. It changed pinball overnight. Now a ball could be shot back up the playfield and aimed at playfield features. This was a very important evolution. It meant the games could be classed as requiring skill to play them. No longer could they be classed as random gambling machines. This meant it was more difficult to ban them and was a defining moment in the history of pinball.
These flipper games were still banned in certain states, including New York until 1976!, Chicago (where they were made), and many other states. The politicians would not accept that flippers introduced a level of skill. They even said that the pleasure of playing a game was a reward, so it was still gambling. The US aversion to gambling, which was a result of the 1920s addiction to speculating on stocks and shares which resulted in the Wall Steet crash and the ensuing great depression, was a major reason for this anti gambling feeling. In 1960, David Gottliebs son Alvin designed a game which gave no replays, in order to overcome the anti gambling problem. Instead of giving free games, the games gave extra balls. They were called Add-A-Ball games. They had no replay unit, but extra balls could be won instead, and the games could show up to ten balls left to play on the back glass. They were still not accepted as skill games for pleasure in some places. In the US, thousands of games were seized during police raids, and smashed with sledge hammers or set alight with petrol, before being sent to landfill. The games seized in the early fifties had wooden legs, and these were turned in to night sticks for the US police. To give some idea of the scale of game seizures, in one year of game confiscations in New York, nearly one and a half tons of silver balls were collected from seized games!
In the UK, the problem really didn't exist. Flipper and bingo games were everywhere. It was illegal to pay out for won replays on the bingo games, but it happened anyway and little was done to control it. How lucky we were. In Italy, it was illegal to have a window to show replays in the back glass, it was even illegal to show more than the five balls to play numbers on the Add-A Ball games. The extra balls won on those Italian games had to be shown by symbols like stars or balloons instead of numbers. It was illegal to have the word flipper on the apron. Italian games have the word button only. Any credits were shown by a lit insert on the apron. It didn't show how many, just that one or more were available. That's why a lot of Williams and Bally games have this insert that can light up. Gottlieb made special versions of their games for Italy, they even had special Italian themed back glass art, so non Italian games didn't need a lit insert on the apron. Italian games were also banned from having a knocker in the game, as they could not give a replay. That coil and plunger assembly that was bolted to the cabinet and made a knocking noise, amplified by the cabinet, to signal a replay or extra ball on machines in other countries. On the late seventies Italian games, when EM games had electronic sound cards, they had a sounder which signalled an achieved high score in place of rewarding a replay and sounding a knocker. They called the Biri Biri. It sounded like a warning of a nuclear war.
Throughout their history, pinball games were constanty evolving. During the early 1950s, the bumpers were improved to shoot the ball off their sides, instead of just bouncing the ball off and down. Games were fitted with all sorts of interactive designs, some were a long term success, some lasted only a short time. Holes which swallowed the ball for a big reward, termed 'skill holes' by Gottlieb, were common on 1950s games. The last game to have them was Sweethearts, made in 1963. They are now known as 'gobble holes'. Zipper flippers were a common feature on Bally games during the late sixties and early seventies, but they were not seen after that. The biggest change was the move from 2" flippers to 3", which happened around 1970. It changed the way games played significantly, as the longer flippers allowed better ball control. By the mid 1950s, games had all the features we know today. Flippers, pop bumpers, dead bumpers, slingshots, kick out holes, targets, roto targets, bells, scoring, animation etc. They gave replays for earning set high scores, and achieving series of events. Maybe lighting a set of images, or getting the balls through a set of rollovers. There were many different ways of winning designed in to these games, often a game had several ways to win. The result of doing this was usually a red coloured plastic 'insert' in the playfield, or several, would light up for a SPECIAL WHEN LIT. Hitting whatever the lit SPECIAL pointed to gave a replay, or several. During the 1950s, 1960s and early 1970s, these machines were very popular and were absolutely everywhere. I remember having to wait for a machine to become free before I could have a game, because so many people enjoyed playing them.
In the early days of the twentieth century, there were hundreds of small businesses and one man bands making those early simple counter top games. Any of them could have made a game that really gave them success. Two did, David Gottlieb made Baffle Ball in 1931. Ray Maloney made Bally Hoo in 1932. Both games sold by their thousand. Later, Harry Williams started his company and the three emerged as the main makers of EM pinballs, all based in Chicago, Illinois, USA. Bally really concentrated on bingo & other gambling arcade games until the early sixties. When the USA finally managed a total ban on them, in 1963, Bally turned their attention to producing flipper games, and soon became a major player. All three made pinballs throughout the golden era, the period when some stunning electro mechanical pinball machines were made. Zaccaria of Bologna, Italy, also made EM games of very high quality during the 1970s.
The bingo style pinballs were the greatest money earners of all because players became addicted to them. There must have been thousands of punters who lost wage packets, marraiges and who knows what else because of them. Even without the lure of a big payout, they are still real fun to play, and are more sought after than flipper pinballs by some collectors. They were despised by the US authorities as they were pure gambling machines. Unlimited coins could be used to improve the odds and features, building up a game. Bally and United were the main manufacturers, even Williams made a few, and they all produced a large variety of games with many different features. Multi cards, supercards, number spotting, magic lines, magic corners, magic squares, magic screens, OK red letter games, the golden game, some with a futurity feature. Some guaranteed the next game free, with certain features lit, if the player could land the balls in the correct holes. Every new style game gave more features and the impression that it would make the game easier to beat. Of course, it was all an illusion. They were all designed to take as much money as possible, and the player had no real chance of winning. Most gave the opportunity to gamble for two or three extra balls after the five balls the game included had landed in numbered holes, using replays or more coins. They all had 'FOR AMUSEMENT ONLY' labels, but it was never true. They could clock up hundreds of replays, which location owners would pay out on. There would be a hidden switch which clocked off all the replays when the punter was paid for them. It didn't happen often, the games were usually were rigged in various ways to ensure they rarely paid big wins. Switches were altered so they could never light a feature, or stepper rivets were covered with tape for the same reason, or wires cut to reduce the players chance of winning. They were also fitted with a type of stepper unit called the reflex unit, which made the game harder as replays were won, and easier as they were used up or coins put in the slot. Of course, after the game got harder because of won replays, it took a far greater number of replays or coins to make them easier again. Every type of bingo was soon banned, so another type appeared in order that the makers could stay one step ahead of the law. It took time for the court proceedings to ban a game, so they could be operated for a while, until the ban was made. They were operated illegally as well, even when they were banned, but were seized and destroyed when discovered. In 1963, the movement of games and spare parts from state to state in the US was made a federal offence and it finally stopped the manufacture of games for use there. Any bingo type games made after that were for export only. There are still only three states in the US where bingo style pinballs can be legally operated to this day, and I think the 1963 law regarding movement of them still applies.
Mention must be made of the men who made these games so good to look at and to play. Two US graphic designers, who between them drew the art for virtually all the US games produced up to the mid sixties. George Molentin did Williams and Bally art, whilst Leroy Parker did the work for Gottlieb. Cristian Marche introduced a different type of back glass art in the late 60s, with his abstract 'pointy people', though he could still do the tradtional comic art as well. Art Stenholm took over from Roy Parker for Gottlieb in 1966, but he had already proved his worth with Gottliebs North Star and Williams Heat Wave before then. Dave Christiansen changed the back glass style in the early seventies, with his more sensual drawings of well endowed ladies. Lorenzo Rimondini was responsible for the art on Zaccaria games. They all produced artwork of the highest quality, the like of which will never be seen again. The game designers who were so clever at making a game that kept the coins rolling in also deserve a mention. Harry Mabs, who put flippers on a game. Steve Kordek, who placed two flippers at the bottom of the playfield, where they have been ever since. He also invented the drop target, amongst many other things. Harry Williams, for so many firsts, he is responsible for many ideas that evolved the game. Wayne Neyens for all those classic Gottlieb games. The list goes on.
The solid state, silicone chip controlled pinball games that first appeared in 1977/78, and followed on from the electro mechanical era, were and are still very popular. For me, the magic of pinball ended in the late 1970s, that is when these beautiful old EM games were replaced with new style games using those solid state electronics, not relays, reset banks, solenoid driven steppers and a motor. The art work began to change, it became more commercial, the lighting was altered and the games looked more like a flashing pub fruit machine than traditional pinball. The games got more complicated, the sounds became electronic beeps and then speech & music. The simple charm of the electro mechanical pinball machine slowly disappeared. Now all we have left are an ever decreasing number of these classic machines, to remind us of a wonderful period in time, now gone forever.
Pinball machine history