As many of you probably figured out, I love pinball. I’ve been playing since I was a young kid, and that passion only grew as I got older. I’m also lucky that my dad is a pinball fan as well. In fact, I take after my dad in a lot of respects, especially with my various hobbies.
Pinball took a long while to evolve into the game we know today. The prototypes for today’s pinballs can be traced back to the bagatelle tables of the 1770’s. There are many different examples of a bagatelle table, but I’ll only focus on two of them. One bagatelle had you hit the balls with a cue stick to get into holes. Other bagatelle’s of this era had a coil spring launcher, like what we have today. The ball would climb up an inclined ramp and ‘ping’ it’s way down through metal prongs. You can see how bagatelle influenced other games beside pinball. Bagatelle is still a popular pub game today, and antique bagatelle games are sought after for home decor.
At first people would pay the bartender for balls to put into the tabletop version. In 1931 we got our first coin operated pinball prototype games from Automatic Industries, called “Whiffle Board”. You can see in the images how quickly they evolved in just a few years, and how similar they are to today’s machines. The Baffle Ball game is especially close to the modern pins of today. In fact, Gottlieb, one of the manufacturers of the Baffle Ball and other early prototypes, was one of the big pinball manufacturers before going defunct in 1996. Baffle Ball also diverts from previous arcade games by being small enough to sit on top of tables and not legs, which almost every single pinball machine today has.
By the early 1930’s, Gottlieb, Bally and 100+ other companies were putting out machines. That number reduced greatly as the second World War was drawing near. But the 1930’s was a progressive decade for pinball. In 1933 the first electric machines were introduced by adding a battery to the back. In 1934 we got our first automatic scoring mechanism, and sounds were prominent in machines. By 1935 we got our first tilt feature, as many people had been cheating at pinball in order to win prizes. 1935 also gave us the first back glass on a machine, which showed the score on there. 1939 gave us disc bumpers, a feature we all know and maybe love on pinball machines.
Enter the 1940’s: pinball had cemented itself as a true American past time. In fact, so much so, that pinball would become outlawed in many states. As it was a game of chance when it first started, it technically was a form of gambling. I’ll be discussing that in another article soon, as it’s a pretty interesting part of pinball history. In 1947 Gottlieb changed pinball forever, by introducing flippers to the game. This made it a game of skill as opposed to chance (and therefor it couldn’t be seen as a form of gambling. The first game to feature flippers was Gottlieb’s “Humpty Dumpty” machine. The pins of the 1940’s through 1960’s are nothing short of works of art. I have a Lady Robin Hood in my personal collection, and it is by far one of my favorite machines. The craftsmanship and love that went into early pinball machines is nothing short of breath taking. If you ever get the chance to play a Golden Age era machine, I strongly urge you too.
Of course there’s more to the history of pinball. The 1970’s brought in a new era of machines. And if you’ve read my new pinball machine articles, you know what games of today are capable of. Stay tuned for more pinball articles, and if you have any questions or comments, find me on twitter at @BaltimoreLauren!