Skee-Ball has been a long-time favorite of Americans. It is commonly played in pizza restaurants, arcades, and carnivals. The game strikes that perfect balance of being easy enough that almost anyone can play it, but it requires skill to achieve a decent score.
Skee-Ball was invented by Joseph Fourestier Simpson in 1907 and was granted its patent in 1908. There are hundreds-of-thousands machines still being used. Some machines in existence date as far back as the 40s. The machines’ longevity is due to their sturdy, solid, and simple construction.
Many people associate Skee-Ball with visits to Chuck E Cheese, roller skate rinks, and county fairs. But Skee-Ball hasn’t always had a wholesome image. There was a time when owning a machine could earn you a visit from the cops who’d chop it up with an ax. Thus begins our Skee-Ball run through history.
1. Skee-Ball Was Invented In New Jersey in 1908
Joseph Fourestier Simpson, Skee-Ball’s inventor, hailed from New Jersey. The Garden State resident came up with the idea for the carnival game in 1907 and filed the paperwork for a patent, which was approved in 1908.
Simpson had worked various day jobs, including a railroad clerk and a real estate agent. But his passion was for inventions, and he dreamed of making his mark on the world with one of his designs.
2. Skee-Ball Wasn’t Joseph Fourestier Simpson’s Only Invention
Joseph Fourestier Simpson made a few other inventions, although none took off like Skee-Ball. One of his inventions was a shipping package designed to safely carry eggs in a bumpy vehicle.
3. John W. Harper And William Nice Jr. Named It “Skee-Ball”
Joseph Fourestier Simpson didn’t name his invention. Instead, his partners John W. Harper and William Nice Jr. came up with the term. The wooden ramp reminded the pair of old ski jumps, and with a little poetic license with the spelling, Skee-Ball was formed.
4. John W. Harper And William Nice Jr. Formed Skee-Ball Alley
Simpson licensed his newly patented game to his partners. Thus, John W. Harper and William Nice formed Skee-Ball Alley in order to promote and sell the game.
5. Joseph Fourestier Simpson Had To Sell His House In 1911
Skee-Ball did not take off as anticipated. Adding to Simpson’s woes, Nice died, leaving Harper short of funds. Simpson didn’t have them either. But in 1911, Simpson’s finances had deteriorated so badly that he even lost his house and had to resort to asking friends for a place to rest his head.
6. Joseph Fourestier Simpson Never Made Profit From Skee-Ball
Joseph Fourestier Simpson was 57 when he came up with his now famous game. Unfortunately, due to marketing miscalculations, Nice’s death, and other snafus, he did not live long enough to reap the financial rewards of his game’s success.
7. Many Wrongly Believe J. Dickinson Este Invented Skee-Ball
There is an American fable about a Princeton University alumni, J. Dickinson Este. The story goes that the man was desperate to make a birthday gift for his son in 1909. Thus, using some spare wood from his father’s business, he designed the game now known to the world as Skee-Ball.
As delightful as this story is, there is no factual evidence for this claim, according to the writers of Seeking Redemption: The Real Story of the Beautiful Game of Skee-Ball. Este did exist in 1909, but he would go on to have twin daughters, but not a son.
Also, Joseph Fourestier Simpson’s filed patent in 1907 is still on record and was approved in 1908. Nonetheless, Este is still often cited as the inventor of the game.
8. Dickinson Este Did Buy The Skee-Ball Rights
The confusion over who invented Skee-Ball partly comes from Este’s involvement in marketing the game. Este had money that Simpson did not and, in 1913, purchased the game to put into two alleys near the Million Dollar Pier in Atlantic City. Until Este’s move, the general public mostly overlooked the game.
9. Skee-Ball Was Declared A Public Nuisance in 1916
Atlantic City declared Skee-Ball and some other games a “noisy amusement” and didn’t allow it to be played on Sundays.
10. Skee-Ball Used To Be Over Three Times Longer
Simpson’s original game was initially built with a 32–36-foot ramp. This made it difficult for alleys and other venues. Thus, the game was often altered to make it shorter and more manageable. These days the standard length is 10 feet.
11. Skee-Ball Was Bought By Wurlitzer, A Jukebox Company
Wurlitzer, a music and jukebox company, took over Skee-Ball from Este. They had observed that the game was bringing in more money at establishments than their jukeboxes.
12. Skee-Ball Did Not Bring Wurlitze Riches
Wurlitzer did not make big money selling Skee-Ball machines. They manufactured 5,000 Skee-Ball machines in 1937, and it took them around seven years to get rid of them.
13. Skee-Ball’s Durability Was Almost Its Downfall
Skee-Ball is easy to manufacture and has a solid, durable design. Thus, it doesn’t easily break with natural wear and tear. The strength of the design is why Wurlitzer struggled to sell more machines. Este had sold a bunch, and they were not breaking; thus, there was little demand for replacements.
14. Skee-Ball Sold Again in 1945 To Philadelphia Toboggan
Philadelphia Toboggan bought Skee-Ball next in 1945. They’d hold on to it until 1985.
15. Skee-Ball Was Sometimes Banned
Gaming laws in certain parts of the US saw Skee-Ball being banned, much like pinball. Thus, in certain places, such as Chicago, cops would raid businesses that owned the game and destroy them with axes.
16. Skee-Ball Didn’t Originally Have A 100-Point Pocket
Skee-Ball’s design has stayed relatively consistent throughout history. However, there have been changes, including some containing a 100-Point pocket.
17. Skee-Ball Isn’t The Game’s Only Name
Skee-Ball has been saddled with other names over the years, including:
- Skill Ball
- Ice Ball
- Skeeter’s Ball
It isn’t always clear where the terms came from or why. However, “Skeeters” wasn’t an unusual phrase in New Jersey. Their minor league baseball team, the Jersey City Skeeters, had formed in 1860 and was still around when Simpson came up with his game.
18. Skee-Ball Became Super Ball On The Price Is Right
From 1981-1998 The Price Is Right featured a game called Super Ball. It was a flashy arcade reimaging of Skee-Ball. Unlike pizza parlors and arcades where players could win tickets towards a prize, Super Ball had expensive rewards. Prizes were over 1,000 dollars and could be as luxurious as a vacation or a car.
You can see it being played on Super Ball’s final evening of being part of the show. Super Ball’s entrance begins at 6:19 on the video of the original broadcast from January 12, 1998.
19. Skee-Ball Has Tournaments And Teams
Skee-Ball has loyal fans who form teams, meet up at social clubs, join leagues and play at tournaments. In some ways, it resembles bowling leagues or darts.
20. Skee-Ball Has A National Championship
Skee-Ball has a national championship in addition to local leagues and tournaments. It is called the Brewskee-Ball.
21. Three Vintage Skee-Ball Machines Were Lost In 2022 Fire
In February 2022, three vintage Skee-Ball machines were lost in a Chicago fire. While folks donated to the team so they could continue to play, a part of history has now been irrevocably lost.
For a game that was invented back in 1908, Skee-Ball has remained relatively unchanged. Its ramp has generally become shorter, there is sometimes a 100-point pocket, and there are occasional electronic upgrades. But the core of the design and rules of the game generally stick to the vision of inventor Joseph Fourestier Simpson.