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History of Pinball: 22 Compelling Facts (Origins, Predecessors,…)

Last Updated on January 25, 2024 by Gamesver Team and JC Franco

Pinball has a long and fascinating history and has entertained avid gamers since 1931The Pinball machine deserves its place in the history books, and with the rapid advancement in technology, it will still be played by our grandkids. This is the history of Pinball!   

Pinball is based on a French table game called Bagatelle. The game started off as a tabletop game and was later designed to be a stand-alone machine. The game went through many mechanical and electronic updates to become the Pinball machine we know and love today.  

Read on to discover the rich history of Pinball and why it was illegal for almost four decades.

1. The Origins Of Pinball

Pinball’s origins come from a French table game called Bagatelle. The aim of Bagatelle was to roll a solid ball down a slanted surface, past strategically placed pins or obstacles, and into a hole on the playing field. Each hole had a set number of points awarded to the player when the ball dropped into a specific hole.

2. The Inventor Of Pinball

In 1871, an avid Bagatelle player, Montague Redgrave, received a patent for his upgraded and improved version of Bagatelle. Redgrave’s version kept the tilted layout of the table, reduced the size of the ball, and introduced the spring-loaded ball release. The new version was still a tabletop or countertop variant, and in 1932 the first stand-alone table was introduced. 

3. The First Coin-Operated Pinball Machine

In early 1931, Raymond Malone developed a coin-operated mechanical pinball machine. The Pinball game was called “Bally Hoo.” The game became so successful that Malone founded the Bally Company.

4. Pinball As A Business

The coin-operated pinball machine opened doors for small businesses such as Drug stores and Taverns to earn extra income. For example, the “Bally Hoo” machine sold for $17,50 and would bring enough profit to pay for itself within one month.  

5. The First Mechanical Pinball Machine

In the last quarter of 1931, D.Gottlieb and Company were tasked by Bingo Novelty Games to design and manufacture a mechanical Pinball machine. D.Gottlieb and Company came up with a newly designed game called Baffle Ball. This game was similar to Raymond Malone’s Bally Hoo but offered beeps, dings, and more high-risk scoring opportunities. 

6. The Introduction Of The Tilt Mechanism

The biggest complaint by Pinball players was that the ball would often get stuck in the corners of the playing field. Players would frequently lift, bump, rock, and kick the machine in an attempt to un-stick the ball, often damaging the pinball machine. In 1934, Harry Williams designed a built-in tilt mechanism for the machine, changing how the game is played.

7. The Pinball Machine Goes Electric

The mid-1930s saw the launch of the first electric Pinball machine. The introduction of music, lights, and an array of sound effects attracted new potential gamers to the world of Pinball.

8. The Pinball Coin Payout Machine

1935 saw the D.Gottlieb and Company add a coin payout mechanism to the popular Baffle Ball Pinball machine. Players would receive coin payouts for high scores and bonus holes. 

9. The Pinball Machine Bumpers

The Bally Company were the first to install mechanical bumpers onto their pinball playing field. The bumpers added an extra element to the gameplay as the ball would move unexpectedly when it hit the bumpers. This gave the players more playing time and improved scoring opportunities.

10. The Banning Of Pinball Machines

In 1942, New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles banned Pinball due to its relation to gambling. Many spectators would bet on the outcome of games, and specific Bingo Pinball machines offered payouts to the players for achievements. 

11. Pinball And The Mafia

Many communities in New York were convinced that Pinball machines were run and operated by the Mafia. This was due to the side betting occurring in establishments that housed Pinball machines, such as cafés and bars where known Mafia members would gather.

12. The Arcades, Police, And The Hudson

New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia saw Pinball as a significant threat and established a special task force in 1942 to combat it. The task force raided arcades all around the city, confiscating and destroying pinball machines with sledgehammers. The destroyed pinball machines were then dumped in the Hudson River. 

13. The Pinball Machine Flipper

D.Gottlieb and Company launched a revolutionary pinball machine in 1947. The “Humpty Dumpty” pinball machine featured six flippers that faced upwards. The flippers were so underpowered that the ball needed to be hit from one flipper to the next to reach the top of the playing field. 

The flipper gave the player a chance to keep the ball in play longer. The flippers were activated by buttons on the side of the machine. 

14. Pinball Legal Again

The New York council was willing to re-evaluate the pinball machine in 1976. Local Pinball advocates invited Rodger Sharp, a pinball wizard, to demonstrate that Pinball was a game of natural skill and not one of chance. 

Sharp launched the ball in the demonstration while the counsel looked on. He then indicated which path the ball would go after hitting it with the flipper. He managed to do this repeatedly, convincing the council to legalize Pinball.

15. The Electronic Pinball Machine

The advancement in technology saw the old mechanical relay machines being replaced. The last mechanical Pinball machine was William’s 1976 Space Odyssey. The new solid-state machines offered more complex rules, improved sound effects, and smoother gameplay. 

16. Pinball Game Improvements

In 1979 Williams bought the Bally Company and launched “Gorgar,” the First talking Pinball machine. The Following year Williams launched the first multi-level playing field Pinball machine, The “Black Night.” With the new solid-state machine, the industry soared with new games such as “Pinbot,” “Earth Shaker,” and “Funhouse,” all being sought-after machines.

17. Licensed Themed Pinball Machine

The advancement of the pinball machine was growing steadily, but the industry needed a new type of game. In 1992 Pat Lawlor designed a licensed themed pinball machine, The “Addams Family.” More than 20,000 “Addams Family” pinball machines were sold across the U.S., sparking demand for popular movie-themed machines.

18. Hidden Easter Eggs In the Displays

Pinball machine designers would often add Easter eggs into some game displays. Williams would have the phrase “DOHO” flash on the display. This was an acronym for the name of the designer’s wife. Other typical Easter eggs were pictures of cows and secret number sequences that would increase the score.

19. The Decline Of The Pinball Machine

The 1990s was not a great era for the pinball machine, as home gaming consoles became more popular. Diminishing machine sales was hard on the manufacturers, and many were forced to close. 

Williams attempted to reinvent the pinball machine with “Pinball 2000,” which combined a video monitor with the traditional playing field. Unfortunately, the game was unsuccessful, and Williams closed the Pinball division’s doors in 1999.  

20. Game Console Pinball

The 1990s saw a decline in physical pinball machines, but the home computer and gaming console kept Pinball alive. Games such as Pinball Dreams, Pinball Space Cadet, and Pro Pinball were available for Windows ME and XP. 

21. Pinball Machine Home Sales

While the home gaming consoles were becoming more popular, Pinball enthusiasts were still looking for new machines. Stern Pinball was the last Pinball manufacturer still producing machines in the U.S. Stern Pinball recorded a substantial increase in home sales between 2005 and 2008. Home sales increased from 35% to 60% of their total machine sales during this period.

22. The New-Age Pinball Machine

New Pinball developers rose to the challenge to make Pinball popular again by using a similar platform to Williams’s “Pinball 2000” machine. The 2010s saw a new Pinball manufacturing company enter the market, Jersey Jack Pinball. Jersey Jack launched their Pinball machine called “Wizard of Oz, which featured a multi-colored LED screen, wide-body, slingshots, vertical kickers, and magnets. 

In Closing

Pinball has been around since the 1930s. It started off as a tabletop game and went through many upgrades, such as becoming coin-operated and receiving mechanical and electrical components. In 1942, Pinball was banned due to its relationship with gambling. But thanks to many Pinball enthusiasts, the ban was lifted, and the Pinball machine lives on!

JC Franco

JC Franco serves as a New York-based editor for Gamesver. His interest for board games centers around chess, a pursuit he began in elementary school at the age of 9. Holding a Bachelor’s degree in Business from Mercyhurst University, JC brings a blend of business acumen and creative insight to his role. Beyond his editorial endeavors, he is a certified USPTA professional, imparting his knowledge in tennis to enthusiasts across the New York City Metropolitan area.