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Pinball History

1934 action in a Chicago haberdashery store

The history of the 1930s is also the history of pinball. The commerical coin-op pinball industry was born in this turbulent decade.

If you are a person surfing for a bit of pinball history, here is the Reader's Digest version:

  • A few people in the 1929-1931 time period start to make games with coin slots on them. Prior to this time, there existed various forms of bagatelle tables (dating back to Europe in the 1700s I believe).
  • Amongst the earliest games to make waves was Automatic Industries Whiffle game from Youngstown Ohio.
  • By late 1931 Chicago manufacturers are making table top games with coin slides taking in a penny a play.
  • By early 1932, Raymond T. Moloney's Lion Manufacturing Company releases Ballyhoo with great sales. The brand name on this game is Bally. David Gottlieb soon releases Baffle Ball and the pinball industry is booming.
  • By late 1933/early 1934, electricity is introduced to the games. Pacific Amusement's Contact game designed by Harry Williams features a door or telephone buzzer for shooting a hole. It also features a solenoid kicker for propelling the ball from one hole to the next. Bally's Rocket introduces the electrified payout genre of gambling games.
  • Playfield lights and light-up backboards appear and are common by 1935. Payout and gambling games rake in lots of money for operators and the manufacturers can charge a premium for them.
  • By 1937/1938, games have evolved to their mature form with full-sized backboards. Bally introduces the playfield bumper in late 1936.
  • The first pop bumper appears in 1938 but it won't be until 1948 that it really catches on.
  • Game production is shut down for World War 2 (WW2) but this spawns a new cottage industry - game conversions. Existing pinballs are retrofitted with new artwork and cosmetic decorations. See Pinball and World War 2.
  • Production resumes after WW2 with full production by 1946.
  • Harry Mabs of Gottlieb invents the flipper and it is introduced on Humpty Dumpty in late 1947. The modern era of pinball is born and the flipper becomes the saviour of the game.
  • Pinball remains much the same for 30 years. Many new scoring techniques and playfield gizmos adorn the games but the basic format is the same. Score reels replace light-scoring in the late 1950s, and multi-player games become possible.
  • Solid state (SS) pinball games hit the scene in the 1976-1977 time frame. The games are now controlled by microprocessors instead of electromechanical logic.
  • Early SS games do not take full advantage of the computer capabilitites but by 1980 there are lots of new innovations and the game starts to take off.
  • The late 70s/early 80s video game invasion nearly kills pinball once more. Pinball doesn't find it's legs again until the mid 80s.
  • Pinball becomes wildly popular again, with Bally's The Addams Family making record sales in the early 1990s. The dot matrix display (DMD) appears in 1990 and adds a new level of interaction with the player.
  • Bally is taken over by Williams in 1988. D. Gottlieb closes it doors after 69 years in 1996. Williams quits pinball manufacturing in November of 1999 after debuting their somewhat revolutionary Pinball 2000 platform. This leaves Stern as the sole commercial manufacturer of pinball machines.
  • New manufacturers are appearing on the horizon at time of writing (2005), and people are beginning to make their own games at home. See Solar Ride 2004 as an example of home technology being applied.

I hava a fair bit of information and images from the 1930s and 1940s. Much of that has gone into Pinball Ad Catalog Volume 1, 1931-33, Pinball Ad Catalog Volume 2, 1934-35, Pinball Ad Catalog Volume 3, 1936, and Pinball and World War 2. Visit the For Sale page for information on these books and hundreds of related ads, etc. Please also visit Former which has a lot of old photos of operators, distributors and coin-op people, plus photos of old machines.

Please visit the Historians page and looks at the links on the main pinball page for much more information on the history of this great game.

Last updated: March 9, 2019

© Terry Cumming, 2000-2019