Pinball history


Pinball has not always been the electronic sound and light show, as we now know it. Pinballs history travels way far back, and electricity was not used nearly as long. The ancestor of pinball is the 18th century Bagatelle-table, a hybrid between pin table and pool table. Player tried to hit balls with cue sticks and get them into pockets or slots surrounded by nails and pins.


A remarkable evolution step, and a step towards modern pinball happened at the end of 19th century, when inventor Montague Redgrave from Ohio patented a shooter, based on recently invented steel spring, in 1871.

Games like this were popular in bars, but they weren't coin operated. The landlord gave you balls for money, and a high score would award you free drinks or cigarettes. But it did not take long before one important invention - coin operation. In the end of 1890's there were already many coin operated games.

Eventually these games got into industrial production. One of the early popular models was "Log Cabin" by Caille Bros in 1901.


These games from 1930's sure do look like pinballs. The manufacturer of right side game, "Bingo" is familiar. Production concentrated already then at Chicago, Illinois, that would be a home for pinball factories for the next half century.

Games evolved, and at some time simple electric devices stepped in. In 1937 Chicago Coin presented "Dux", that was the first game with full size backglass.

DUX (without legs)

Advancing lights showed the players score. There was even a simple animation of flying ducks. But something was missing... the flippers! Player could not affect game play in any other way than nudging the machine at proper times. Ten more years had to pass before Gottlieb's "Humpty Dumpty", the first pinball with flippers.


Humpty Dumpty playfield Humpty Dumpty backglass

And flippers it had. Totally 6 of them, three on each side of playfield. However their placement was not quite like today. Flippers were quite high on playfield, operated "wrong way", the shaft was at the inner end of flipper. It took another few years to get the flippers to familiar place and change the advancing light scoring to digital reels.

Golden era

Fifties, sixties and seventies were the golden era of pinball. Most important makers were Gottlieb, Bally and Williams. Many legendary games are from that era: Gottlieb "Kings & Queens", "Slick Chick", Williams "Gusher", "Skill Pool". Bally's best time was the seventies, with great games like "4 Million B.C" and "Fireball".

Gusher Slick Chick Fireball

The end?

In the beginning of 1980's the video games started gaining popularity from pinballs, slowly but surely. Many great inventions were made. Microprocessors were taken into use, bringing us great sounds and fine graphics, but nothing helped. Dave Gottliebs family business, having operated for 60 years, came to its end. A little before that Williams and Bally merged their pinball divisions. In the 1990's Bally/Williams made many extremely good machines, that will surely be remembered for another 60 years. Pity was it that pinballs popularity never growed back to what it was in the golden era. In the end of 1998 Bally/Williams presented a new generation pinball, Pinball 2000. Even that did not help competing against video games, and so in 1999 the great company ceased making pinballs after more than 60 years. Luckily all is not lost. Sam Stern's son Gary is continuing pinball production for the Stern brand. It will be interesting to see what he accomplishes, and whether the pinball popularity will ever rise again. Thanks for the great machines to Gottlieb, Bally, Williams and all others, and to all great ingenious people who worked with these companies! Good luck to Gary Stern!

Years and machines

1931 - Baffle Ball (D. Gottlieb & Co,) - First commercially significant game. Sold over 50000!
1931 - Ballyhoo (Bally Mfg.) - Ballys first game. Sold 75000!
1932 - Advance (Harry Williams) - First TILT-mechanism.
1933 - Contact (Pacific Amusement) - Game by Harry Williams, first time a mechanical device moving ball (an eject hole) and sound (a bell)!
1936 - Bally presents bumper in game Bumper.
1946 - Harry Williams starts Williams Manufacturing company.
1947 - Humpty Dumpty - (D. Gottlieb & Co.) - First game with flipperst!
1948 - Williams presents jet bumper in game Saratoga, and puts flippers on lower side of playfield.
1951 - Gottlieb presents a slingshot.
1954 - Super Jumbo (Gottlieb) - First 4 player machine.
1956 - Balls-A-Poppin' (Bally) - First multiball.
1957 - Metal legs replace wooden ones.
1960 - Magic Clock (Williams) - First game with moving target.
1960 - Flipper (Gottlieb) - Extra Ball for the first time.
1962 - Vagabond (Williams) - Williams presents the drop target.
1968 - Williams increases flipper size from 2" to their current size.
1972 - Williams uses DC powered solenoids.
1975 - Spirit of 76 (Mirco Games) (do not confuse with same title by Gottlieb) - First game to use a microprocessor.
1977 - Atarians (Atari) - First widebody machine.
1977 - Bally Eight Ball makes modern pinball sales record: 20230!
1979 - Gorgar (Williams) - First talking pinball.
1980 - Firepower (Williams) - First solid state multiball.
1981 - Haunted House (Gottlieb) - First three-level playfield.
1987 - Laser War (Data East) - New company presents first game with stereo sound.
1990 - Checkpoint (Data East) - First dot matrix display.
1993 - Twilight Zone (Williams) - More patents than any other game so far.
1998 - Williams presents new Pinball 2000 -system.
1999 - After two P2K games, Williams quits because of low demand.
1999 - Gary Stern buys Sega and continues as the only pinball producer under STERN brand.


Images: Bueschel: Pinball 1, Internet Pinball Database