The history of pinball machines

People love playing games, especially those that do not require complex rules to be enjoyed. Among the games that rose in popularity is pinball, a game where people will only have to pull a lever and keep the ball in play as much as they could. 

Pinball grew massively popular in the United States and in other parts of the country. By searching pinball machines on the internet, people will find that there are several machines that were created throughout the years. There are classic ones which continue to be popular among pinball fans while there are those that are based on pop culture aesthetics. 

By seeing a lot of pinball machines on arcades and on listings of collectable items on Pinball Store Online, some wonder where this has originated from. With that, here is a quick runthrough of the history of pinball machines:

The inspiration

The traditional pinball machine was inspired from a French game called Bagatelle in the 1700s. This is a board game with wooden pins and a ball. This game that looks like an wooden box or a mini pool table was invented in the late 18th century. Here, the balls would have to be hit with a cue-like stick. 

In this game, the balls will bounce around the pins stuck in the board. The balls will then land on the pockets and the players will earn scores that depends on what pockets they have landed on. This game didn’t have any flippers and it wasn’t powered by electricity. 

A new take on bagatelle 

In 1871, British inventor Montague Redgrave made improvements to the existing Bagatelle. He made the table more compact and replace the balls with smaller marbles. He also inclined the box then added a coiled spring and plunger which is similar to what modern pinball machines use. 

First pinball machines

The world saw some of the earliest pinball machines in the 1930s. These coin-operated machines were created by Automatic Industries. Back then, they called it the whiffle board. 

Another game that was created in the 1930s was Ballyhoo which was invented by Raymond Maloney. This same guy also later established the Bally Manufacturing Company in Chicago, Illinois. This grew to be one of the biggest pinball companies later on. 

Games like ‘Bingo’ by Bingo Novelty Company and ‘Baffle Ball; by D Gottlieb & Co. Both of these games are made wih wooden legs and rails on the side of the machine which are different from the ones seen today that are made with chrome and steel. 

Many people believe that the term ‘pinball’ was used during this time since the machines had balls and pins on them. However, the term was only officially coined in 1936. 

Electric pinball machines 

The first pinball machine that was powered by electricity was made in 1933. This machine was powered by batteries that made the game possible. The same game machine also had sound effects with the help of electromechanical bells, chimes, and buzzers. Then, the scores were all displayed on the clock counter. 

In 1934, pinball machines started to be made with light and back-light coloured glasses. This is the same style that was used in 1937 for Bally’s ‘Bumper’ pinball machines which were made with coil bumpers. 

More improvements were applied to the said machines as disc bumpers were invented in 1939. Then, in 1975, Micro released the first-ever solid-state electronic pinball machine called the ‘Spirit of 76’. 

Tilt mechanism 

Pinball rose to popularity during the Great Depression since people saw it as a low-cost game that anyone could afford. Back then, pinball operators gave away prizes for those who can get high scores. This led some people to chat the game by shaking the table. 

In 1935, Harry Williams, the founder of the Williams Manufacturing Company, invented the tilt mechanism. This determines how hard a pinball machine can be shaken. This mechanism is still used up until now since it is still seen on modern pinball machines. 

There are two types of tilt mechanisms that are being used for pinball. One is for a side to side tilt and the other, a slam tilt which prevents people from slamming the machine or trying to drop it. The former uses a pendulum and a bob device that hangs inside a metal detection ring. Meanwhile, the latter uses leaf switches that detect a slam whenever it happens. 

With this built-in mechanism, players were not immediately penlaized for trying to rig the game since their actions will have no chance n manipulating the game results no matter how hard they shake it. 

World War II

Between the years 1939 and 1945, pinball became less popular as all funds that used to be allotted for production had to be used for the war. As a result, only a few machines were created during that time

Before the war, there were over a hundred pinball manufacturing companies that were mostly based in Chicago. However, it was because of the fierce competition that the competition got tougher during the war. As a result, it was during these times that there were only around 14 companies that were left in business. 


After the war, the popularity of pinball rose again. As the usual gameplay of the game was still loved by the people, it was made even more special after D. Gottlieb & Co. introduced flippers in 1947. The first machine that used this type of flippers was called the Humpty Dumpty. 

After the flippers were launched, pinball had its ‘Golden Age’ from 1948 to 1958. This was also the time where several pinball machine manufacturers have created various developments with flippers. 

One popular example of this is the Triple Action by Genecon which had a unique flipper placement. Whereas the usual flippers of pinball machine are facing inward, this machine’s flippers were facing outwards. 

Another popular example is the ‘Spot Bowler’ machine created by D. Gottlieb & Co. which had a very similar style of flippers to the ones that can be seen today. The only difference is that the first flippers are smaller compared to the standar 3-inch flippers being used today. 

Banning of pinball 

Although the years 1948 to 1958 were considered the golden years of pinball, it was technically illegal to play it during that time. Before it even had its best years, the game was already banned on New York City as most people tend to bet on the game outcome to see who can get the highest scores. Similarly, there were also several pinball manufacturers in Chicago and some of them were controlled by people with criminal records. 

It was also during those years that some people saw them as a waste of money since there was an ongoing war. As a result, NYC policemen raided some public spaces that had pinball machines. There was even a case where NYC mayor Fiorello LaGuardia smashed some machines in front of the press. 

After the ban was approved in NYC, other cities like Los Angeles, Chicago, Milwaukee, and New Orleans. Other cities had also implemented lighter punishments for playing pinball, especially for children who wish to play it during school hours. 

It was only in 1974 that the California Supreme Court lifted their ban in Los Angeles. At that time, they ruled out that pinball is a game of skill and not of chance. Two years later, the ban was also lifted in New York. 

Pinball’s fall 

The lifting of the ban made pinball available for people again. However, it was with the fact that it had been unavailable for some time that there were already changes in the gaming scene. Specifically, this was the time where video games grew massively popular since they were easier to play and they don’t take up too much space. 

This led to the rise of electronic pinball machines that made it more interesting again. This also led to the fall of reputable pinball creator D. Gottlieb & Co as Bally and Williams dominated the industry with their modern pinball machines. This company is the one responsible for some popular pinball machines in the 1990s such as twilight Zone, Monster Bash, and Addams Family. 

Though these games may have been successful, it was not enough to keep the pinball industry back into its golden days. As its popularity declined over the years, it was by 2002 that Stern Pinball was the only one left as the leading pinball brand. 

Pinball’s comeback 

A few years after, pinball’s popularity had its comeback after the release of improved machines that gave the classic game a modern approach. Among the significant changes that can be seem is how some of the latest machines use LED playfield lighting systems, monitors, and backboard. Some special pinball machines even have animatronics to make the game more interesting. 

As the game has also been adapted digitally, more people have been aware of how the game is played and how much fun it is. More importantly, it was with the rising popularity of vintage items and aesthetics that people have regrown their interest on the machines that allow players to experience the game just like in the olden times. 

Now that the pinball machines are widely available in arcades and family entertainment places, more people have grown a massive interest in having their own machines. If you are one of those, make sure to check out some of our on-hand items here at Pinball Store Online! 

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