Flashback Friday: A History Of Pinball

A brief history of pinball, from the 19th century through 1979, when this article was originally published in High Times.
Flashback Friday: A History Of Pinball
High Times/ James Hamilton

Learn about the history of pinball in this High Times print piece from July, 1979.

Bagatelle, a popular game in the 19th century, is the granddaddy of pinball. Bagatelle is similar to pool, in that you use a cue stick to shoot balls into scoring holes. In 1871 a game called Improvements in Bagatelle was introduced, which featured a spring-powered plunger, bells, gates and metal pins spread about the playing field to confuse the ball’s downward progress. Imitations soon followed, although none were particularly commercially successful.

In the late 1920s electricity was added. The electric lights and bells defined modern pinball. Most games weren’t pinball as it is known and played today; they were coin-operated novelty machines employing metal balls through a maze of pins and lanes and into scoring holes. When Harry Williams invented such a pin-ball game in 1931, called Advance, he added mechanical gates, metal arches (as opposed to wooden arches) and the first tilt mechanism.

During the late ’20s and early ’30s coin-operated amusement machines enjoyed increasing popularity, and the demand for better games was outstripping the supply. In 1933 the game Jigsaw provided a metal puzzle that was completed by dropping balls into the proper holes. Williams invented the electric kick-out hole in the game Contact. Soon kick-out holes rang bells and the play fields became more attractive. Small-time manufacturers proliferated. Then a new gimmick was introduced, “pay-out pinball,” combining the fun of old-time pinball with the potential profits of slot machines. The price for this thrill jumped from one penny to five cents.

Public opinion turned against pinball, and soon it was enjoying more popularity than ever. It was a forbidden fruit, like dope, crime, racketeering, speakeasies and booze. Humphrey Bogart played a gangster who forced merchants to rent his pinball machines in the 1936 crime film Bullets or Ballots, but Edward G. Robinson caught up with the son of a gun.

While technology improved the play of pinball, public outrage gave pinball manufacturers a king-size pain in the neck. In 1941, New York City prohibited pinball. Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia made the front pages as he led his antipinball campaign, smashing pinball machines with a sledgehammer, charging that pinball corrupted moral fiber and caused juvenile delinquency by encouraging gambling. To top things off, the war created a shortage in materials. The industry was in trouble.

In 1947, D. Gottlieb & Son introduced flippers in a machine called Humpty Dumpty. Pinball entered a new era as it became a respectable game of skill. Then Bally introduced bingo pinball—still popular today—which awarded free games or money for lining up the proper numbers on a game board devoid of flippers. The playing field resembled a bingo card. By 1956 a federal-court decision ruled that bingo pinball machines were in effect slot machines and must be controlled by gambling laws.

Soon, new refinements included add-a-ball, almost extinct today, where a player added as many free balls as he could to his game. Then the free ball was offered, then free games. The movie Tommy came out, the first rock opera, all about a pinball wizard. Then, in 1976, New York City lifted its ban on pinball. Pinball, like rock ‘n’ roll, is here to stay.

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