Lyndon Durant

Historical Interlude: The History of Coin-Op Part 4, From Sportlands to Playlands

Pinball ruled the roost of the 1930s arcade, selling in numbers that no other coin-operated amusement could approach, but it was hardly alone.  Sports games, shooting games, athletic machines, crane games, and a whole host of other exotic contraptions continued to exist alongside pin tables under the catch-all categories of “novelty amusements” or “arcade pieces.”  After pinball’s decline in the 1950s due to bingo machines, gambling stigma, and the Johnson Act, many of these products came out from pinball’s shadow to take center stage in the industry.  Pinball did not vanish, of course, continuing to contribute significant revenues, but it was no longer the dominant game in production.  Instead, it was the novelty products that drove the industry, with new concepts like shuffle alleys and bumper pool briefly taking the market by storm and then being superseded by the next big thing.  At the same time, the decline of the inner city and the rise of suburbia coupled with the onset of the Baby Boomer generation signaled a shift in arcade venues once again.  While the big inner city arcades did not disappear entirely, by the end of the 1950s coin-operated amusements had dispersed across fun spots like bowling alleys and skating rinks and shopping venues like department stores and discount houses while exhibiting a new focus on children’s entertainment.  This helped precipitate a period of rapid consolidation that left only five major producers of coin-operated games by 1965.

This is part four in a six part series examining the history of the arcade industry from its earliest days until the dawn of the video game era. Principle sources this time around were Automatic Pleasures by Nic Costa, Arcade 1: Illustrated Historical Guide to Arcade Machines by Richard Bueschel and Steve Gronowski, numerous articles in Billboard Magazine from the 1950s and 1960s, the website and the forthcoming book All In Color For a Quarter to be published by Keith Smith (no relation).

Bats, Balls, Pins, and Pucks


The playfield of All American Baseball, the first pitch-and-bat style coin-operated baseball game

The first novelty games to achieve prominence in the late 1920s were the floor-model sports cabinets like the Chester-Pollard football and golf games that fueled the new Sportland arcade.  This genre enjoyed its peak popularity between 1927 and 1931, after which the high cost of the cabinets and the nickel playing price left an opening for the penny play pinball machines to begin their rise to dominance.  Nevertheless, new sports games would continue to appear from time to time during the Depression, complimenting the pinball and crane games that dominated the decade.  After World War II, with pinball on the decline and crane games banned entirely by the Johnson Act, sports games began appearing in greater numbers, although they were never one of the main selling points of the arcade.  While at least one game for just about every popular sport in the U.S. was released over the next two decades, the most widely emulated sport was baseball.

The first known coin-operated baseball game was created by Californian George Miner in 1929.  Both an avid baseball fan and an accomplished coin-op engineer, Miner combined his interests in the All American Baseball Game.  Clearly inspired by the Chester-Pollard output, All American Baseball featured manikins displayed in a large wooden cabinet and a bat controlled by a lever similar to the one on the Play Football game.  Holes in front of each fielder represented outs, while a series of troughs along the back of the cabinet represented everything from a foul ball to a home run.  For a nickel, the player could keep swinging at balls until he made three outs.  Miner established the Amusement Machine Corporation of America in Nevada in 1930 to sell the game, but in 1931, he sold the rights to Harry Williams when the sports game market went south.  Williams remained enamored with baseball games for the rest of his career and became one of the principle drivers of the market both before and after establishing the Williams Manufacturing Company in 1943.  In 1935, after he joined Bally, he and Miner prepared to create an updated version of All American Baseball for the company, but these plans were cut short when Miner died in a plane crash on October 7.  When Williams moved to Rockola in 1937, however, he brought the Miner patents and tooling with him and created World Series 1937, which proved a modest hit.

After World War II, Bally ushered in a new era of baseball games in 1947 with Heavy Hitter, for which it purchased the rights from its inventor, a Royal Oak, Michigan, cab driver named Jimmy Keller.  Key to the new game’s popularity was the fast, unpredictable delivery of the ball, accomplished through a mechanism that launched it from under the table.  Several imitations followed from companies like Gottlieb and United, but the Williams Manufacturing Company seized leadership of the genre.  Beginning with a game called Box Score in 1947, Williams manufactured a new baseball game nearly every year through 1973.  Innovations by Williams over those twenty-five years include the first “running man” unit, which circled the bases as the player recorded hits, on Super World Series in 1951, one of the earliest games with multiple pitch types, Deluxe Short Stop, in 1958, the first game to allow additional playing time for reaching a certain score, Extra Innings, in 1962, and the first game to use electronic sound, Action Baseball, in 1971.  United remained a close competitor and often copied Williams innovations, though quite possibly with the permission of Harry Williams himself seeing as he and United owner Lyndon Durant were old friends.


Ten Strike, a popular manikin bowling game from H.C. Evans and Company

While baseball remained the most enduring sports game of the period, manikin cabinets devoted to other games appeared from time to time.  One of the most popular — both before and after World War II — was a bowling game called Ten Strike produced by H.C. Evans Company.  Originally founded by Edwin Hood in 1892 as a carnival supplier, H.C. Evans became a pioneer of console gambling games under the founder’s son, Dick Hood, with the wildly popular Galloping Dominoes unit in 1936.  By 1939, Evans was really feeling the heat of the anti-gambling lobby and decided to produce a console game incorporating skill-based elements, which led to the development of Ten Strike.  In this game, the player uses a knob to position the arm on a mannikin holding a steel ball and then presses a button to launch the ball at a set of miniature bowling pins.  The game remained in continuous production from 1939 to 1953 — with the exception of the war years — and entered production again in 1957 as the two-player variants Ten Pins and Ten Strike from Williams after that company bought the rights from Evans in 1955.

Another company to invest heavily in sports games was International Mutoscope, known for being one of the premiere innovators in the field of coin-operated novelty machines.  In the early 1940s, the company deployed the earliest known coin-operated hockey game, Play Hockey.  Presaging the the ball-and-paddle video games that rose to prominence in 1973, this game placed two players in control of manikin hockey goalies at either end of a long table.  Each player could swing his goalie’s stick by rotating a knob, and the objective was to knock a ball into the opposing player’s goal.  In 1948, the company deployed another unusual sports game, a boxing title called Silver Gloves.  In this game, each player controls a boxer through a lever that allows him to move left and right and a trigger that allows him to punch.  The goal is to knock the opposing player’s boxer down.


Goalee, a hockey game by Chicago Coin

Perhaps the company that experienced the greatest success with non-baseball manikin sports games was Chicago Coin.  The story of Chicago Coin is intimately tied to that of Genco, as the founder was yet another brother of the three men that established that company and was actually responsible for getting the family into the industry in the first place.  Samuel H. Gensburg was born in Russia in 1893, but the family immigrated to the United States when he was three years old and settled in Pittsburgh.  A natural businessman, Gensburg helped out in his father’s grocery store for a time until he decided he wanted to open his own store at sixteen.  Before long, his store was outperforming his father’s, and he opened a second store the next year followed by a nickelodeon cinema the year after that when he was just eighteen.  At roughly age 20, Gensburg left Pittsburgh to seek new opportunities in the Western United States, but those plans ended in Chicago when he met, fell in love with, and ultimately married Dora Wolberg in 1919.  He worked as an order filler for Sears for a time and then moved to Iowa to run a grocery store.

Eight years later, Sam learned about a company up in Milwaukee that had installed a
coin-operated machine that vended Hershey bars and decided to install one in his store. When it proved successful, he bought 100 of the machines and relocated to Chicago to place them in bars and taverns in partnership with his brother, Dave.  In 1929 or 1930, the Gensburg brothers were introduced to the Little Whirlwind machine developed by coin-op innovator Howard Peo.  Like the early pinball games, Little Whirlwind was a countertop unit in which the player launched steel balls onto a playfield and hoped they landed in scoring holes, but it had a vertical orientation rather than a horizontal one and featured spiral lanes rather than pins, taking inspiration from the allwin gambling games currently popular in Europe.  Figuring the game would be a nice addition to his route, Sam contacted another of his brothers, Louis, a manufacturer of prizes for Cracker Jack boxes, who built a copy of Peo’s game called Hearts that the Gensburg brothers sold for a cheaper price.  When Peo threatened legal action, the trio brought in a cousin who had invented an electric pencil sharpener and a bicycle coaster brake, to build a new version that did not run afoul of Peo’s patents.  Based on this arrangement, Louis, David, and their brother Meyer established Genco in 1931, while Sam joined with his brother-in-law, Sam Wohlberg, and a third partner named Lou Koren, to establish a trade-in business for used coin-op machines dubbed the Chicago Coin Machine Exchange.

Before long, Sam decided that he could make better pinball machines than his brothers and established Chicago Dynamic Industries as a manufacturer of games marketed under the Chicago Coin name.  The company started making replacement boards for popular existing games like Ballyhoo before deploying its first original pin table, Blackstone, in 1933.  Two years later, the company experienced success with Beam-Lite, the first pinball game with a lighted playfield and a 5,000-unit seller.  Like Genco, Chicago Coin prided itself on improving on the ideas of others rather than making important technological innovations itself, so the company rarely had a leading game in the market.  One of its pingames, however, a 1947 flipperless release called Kilroy, sold a remarkable 8,800 units, the most of any pin game between World War II and the first licensed games of the mid 1970s.

In addition to pinball, Chicago Coin aggressively entered every novelty category in existence, which guaranteed that even though few of its products were leaders in their field, the company remained generally successful based on the sheer volume of its output.  Therefore, it is no surprise that the company quickly embraced sports games after World War II.  In 1946, Chicago Coin released a game called Goalee [sic], an enhancement of the International Mutoscope Play Hockey game that replaced the dials with levers and included an electric motor, thereby allowing a single player to challenge a hardware-controlled opponent.  Popular for years after its debut, Goalee brought Chicago Coin over half a million dollars in revenue.  The next year, the company expanded its sport line into basketball with Basketball Champ, in which one player controlled a player trying to make a shot on the basket and the other player controlled a defender attempting to block the shot.  While manikin sports games like these achieved some popularity, however, it was larger table sports games that fueled a new expansion of coin-operated amusements into bars and taverns in the 1950s.

Bowling, Bumper Pool, and Shooting Galleries


Shuffle Alley from the United Manufacturing Company, which ushered in a whole new category of coin-operated amusements

The decline of pinball in the postwar era was not just due to the game being outlawed in major markets like New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago.  Just as damaging was the continuing stigmatization of the game as a front for organized crime due to the production of payout models such as Bally’s bingo games.  As a result, many legitimate businesses were hesitant to allow any pingames on their premises, denying distributors and operators the same access to bars and taverns they had enjoyed during the Depression.  Therefore, coin-operated amusement manufacturers urgently needed to develop new table games to stay relevant in postwar America.  The solution to this problem came from Lyn Durant and his United Manufacturing Company, which had the good fortune to develop a new type of game just as a new fad began sweeping the country.

In October 1949, United deployed a bowling game called Shuffle Alley in which the player launched a small metal-cased object similar to a hockey puck down an eight-foot lane to trigger switches on the playing field that would cause suspended pins to retract to simulate being knocked down.   Similar coin-operated games had appeared as far back as the 1890s, but had never really caught on in a big way before.  This time, however, things were different.  For one, United melded its bowling game with some of the most popular features of the pinball table such as electromechanical engineering, totalizer scoring, and a colorful, lighted backglass.  More importantly, however, American Machine and Foundry (AMF), a major defense contractor looking to diversify its business, deployed the first automatic pinsetter for bowling alleys in 1951.  Spurred by this innovation, bowling quickly became one of the most popular competitive sports in the United States, and new bowling alleys opened across the nation.  With bowling so popular, bar owners that would never think of hosting a pinball table due to their sinister reputation were soon clamoring to have a shuffle alley in their establishments.  United sold over 10,000 units of its Shuffle Alley  game and was quickly joined in the market by other companies like Chicago Coin and Genco, but the dominant company in the field was Bally, which by the mid-1950s was releasing a new game every other month in a variety of configurations to fit the needs of bars and taverns of all shapes and sizes. Although introduction of new models declined after 1955 as the market neared saturation, shuffle alleys continued to be produced into the 1990s.

Just as the shuffle alley began to decline, another new concept appeared to keep the tavern market going.  Before the Great Depression, the game of pocket billiards had been one of the most popular table games in the United States.  So popular, in fact, that in the late nineteenth century betting parlors — called “poolrooms” at the time — often featured billiard tables so patrons could pass the time between horse races.  As a result, Americans soon began referring to the game of pocket billiards as pool.  During the Depression, pool entered a long period of decline that continued after World War II and did not end until the 1960s.  In the meantime, manufacturers looked for other ways to keep the pool table relevant.

In May 1955, a Bay City, Michigan, company called Valley Manufacturing, originally established as a shuffleboard manufacturer in 1944, introduced a new billiards game called bumper pool.  Rather than featuring pockets around the perimeter of the table, this game features just two holes set into either end of the table, one for each player.  Upon inserting a dime, each player is provided a cue stick and five balls, which he has to shoot into the hole on his opponent’s side of the table.  In the middle of the table are eight strategically placed bumpers to make shots more difficult.  In 1954, no coin-operated pool games had been introduced into the market, but after Valley’s game took off, a whopping thirty games debuted before the end of the year.  In 1956, the number of new games jumped to 52, by far the most models introduced of any type of amusement machine that year.  Subsequently, the number of new bumper pool models declined precipitously as the brief fad ended.  In 1957, however, both Valley and another firm called Fischer Manufacturing put a coin slot on a traditional six pocket pool table, bringing coin control to the standard billiards industry.  As interest in pool revived in the 1960s, coin-freed pool tables became one of the pillars of the coin-operated amusement industry.


Air Raider from J.H. Keeney and Company, a popular target shooting game during World War II

Another game that experienced increasing popularity both during the Depression and in the post-war period was the coin-operated target shooting game, in which a player uses a gun-shaped controller to aim and shoot at targets.  Shooting galleries were a popular destination in Victorian England, so it should come as no surprise that the earliest coin-operated rifle games appeared — like so many other coin-operated machines — in Great Britain in the 1880s and 1890s.  The earliest known game of this type, in which inserting a coin would release the firing mechanism on an actual rifle that fired either pellets or real bullets, was created by Englishman William Reynolds in 1887, but it proved unsuccessful.  Over the next several years, innovations in the field centered around the countertop trade stimulator models until the next major breakthrough in full-sized target shooting, the electric rifle, was patented by Englishman J.L. McCullogh in 1896.  This rifle did not fire a projectile, but could be attached to a target via wires and register hits by determining the position of the gun relative to the target through the use of wipers and contacts.  Popular in both Great Britain and the United States at the turn of the twentieth century, electric rifle games ultimately faded from the public consciousness as the arcade fell out of favor in the 1910s.

In the mid 1920s, the electric rifle returned to prominence in the United States thanks to the efforts of William Gent.  Born in Rockford Illinois in 1871, Gent entered the coin-operated machine business in 1903 through the Buffalo firm of Mark Wagner & Company.  In 1906, Gent moved to Cleveland to become the manager of the United Vending Machine Company, which was reorganized as the William Gent Vending Machine Company in 1917.  As coin-operated games returned to prominence in the 1920s, Gent, by then one of the most influential entrepreneurs in the coin-op industry, decided to redesign the old electric rifle concept by replacing the plain circular target on a cast-iron lollipop stand with a wooden cabinet featuring an array of targets such as ducks that “quacked” when hit and planes with propellers that would spin when they were shot.  Gent marketed this game as the Electric Rifle.

In 1929, a Canadian inventor named Henry Clavir created his own twist on the shooting game with Radio Rifle, the first game to employ targets projected on a screen.  In this game, a rifle sits atop a large metal box housing a roll of film and a projector.  Upon the insertion of a nickel, the projector turns on and beams the top image on the film roll onto a surface.  The player receives five shots, and each time he pulls the trigger, a needle inside the machine synced to the position of the gun punctures the film, which looks like a bullet hole on the projected image.  After the player takes all his shots, the machine cuts the target off the film roll and vends it to the player as a souvenir.


The Rayolite Rifle Range, perhaps the first target shooting game utilizing a light gun

Gun games using contacts and needles were ultimately superseded by guns using light sensing technology.  The earliest patent for a light gun was filed in 1920 by an Englishman named W.G. Patterson, but he appears not to have created any games based on his invention.  Instead, a small Tulsa, Oklahoma, firm called the Rayolite Rifle Range Company pioneered the light gun game.  Established in 1934, the company was built around the Ray-O-Lite System, patented by Charles Griffith in the same year the company was founded, in which a specially-made gun shoots a narrow beam of light when the trigger is pulled that is picked up by a solar cell attached to a target to register a “hit” on the object.  The company created the Rayolite Rifle Range around this system with a duck as the target, which was manufactured starting in 1935 by the Seeburg Corporation.  When the game proved successful, Seeburg continued to create other popular light gun games over the next decade and a half such as Chicken Sam (1939), Shoot the Bear (1947), and Coon Hunt (1952).

With World War II looming in Europe by the end of the 1930s, the light gun reached the apex of its popularity as games with a military theme took center stage, led by the releases of J.H. Keeney and Company.  In 1939, Keeney deployed Anti-Aircraft Machine Gun, which featured a large metal machine gun replica and targets projected onto a screen. The game proved so popular that a number of variants were released over the next two years such as Air Raider and Shoot Your Way to Tokyo.  Meanwhile, Seeburg created war-themed variants of its popular Chicken Sam game like Trap the Jap and Hit the Siamese Rats. The popularity of these light gun games peaked in early 1942, after which the production of new amusement machines was curtailed by the entry of the United States into the war.  Light gun games failed to enjoy the same success after the war, superseded by a new gun game concept pioneered by an engineer named Eldon Dale.


An early Dale gun game manufactured by the Exhibit Supply Company

A native of Missouri living in Long Beach, California, Dale developed his own twist on the old electric rifle game by having the gun swivel on a stand attached to a metal rod extending under a greatly truncated playfield. If the player lined up the rifle perfectly with a target, the metal rod would touch it, and a pull of the trigger would complete a circuit to register a hit. To give the illusion of a large playing area within the small cabinet, Dale used a mirror to reflect the targets in a manner similar to a submarine periscope.  Before the Dale system, both light gun and electric rifle games required a great deal of space to place enough distance between the player and the target, making them suitable only for larger venues.  The Dale game, however, fit in a cabinet no larger than a pinball table, making gun games suitable for a variety of locations.

Dale created his gun game at his own Eldon Dale Manufacturing Company, but it was released nationally by the Exhibit Supply Company as Shooting Gallery in March 1950.  Once the game was in the field, however, Exhibit discovered that the Dale mechanism could easily shock the player, so the company redesigned it and released a whole line of games in October 1950 featuring the same basic setup but different themes and cabinet art.  Before long, Genco and United were making versions of the Dale gun game as well.  Production of Dale games peaked in 1954, a year in which fifteen different gun games were released and manufacturers built over 7,000 cabinets in just seven months.  Although fewer games were produced per year after that, target shooting games remained an important draw not just at arcades, but at a wide variety of new venues that began appearing by the end of the 1950s.

Fun Spots and Playlands


Gun games and a sound recording booth at the Wonderland Arcade in Kansas City, Missouri, 1968

Throughout the 1950s, the United States experienced great population shifts as the development of the Interstate Highway system and the rise of an automobile-centric culture led many families to leave life in the big city for rapidly developing suburban communities.  As a result, traditional arcades once again entered a period of decline, trapped as they were in newly blighted inner city neighborhoods.  Simultaneously, as the youth population of the United States exploded through the onset of the Baby Boomer generation, all manner of new entertainment venues opened their doors in suburbia such as bowling alleys, roller and ice skating rinks, public swimming pools, drive-in theaters, and amusement parks.  Collectively referred to as “fun spots,” there were an estimated 21,093 such venues around the country by 1958 taking in $2 billion annually.  With the inner city arcade once again falling by the wayside and many bars only amenable to select pieces like shuffle alleys, these fun spots were vitally important to the continued well-being of the coin-operated amusement industry.

During the Depression, coin-operated amusements had catered to adults looking to forget their troubles for an hour or two through the relatively cheap thrills of the penny arcade.  With amusements expanding heavily into fun spots in the 1950s, however, the emphasis shifted to providing fun for the whole family — and especially for children.  Therefore, sports games, gun games, driving games, ball bowlers (a variation on the shuffle alley first introduced by United in 1956 that sported longer lanes and miniature balls rather than pucks), snack vending machines, and novelty pieces like instant photo booths and voice recorders all played an increasingly prominent role in the industry.  Perhaps the greatest indicator of the importance of children to the new amusement arcade, however, was the rapid development of a new segment of the business during the decade, the kiddie ride.

In 1931, Otto Hahs, owner of the Hahs Machine Works in Sikeston, Missouri, decided to build a mechanical horse to entertain his children.  Before long, children from around the neighborhood were showing up in droves to ride this contraption, so Hahs decided to attach a coin chute and a timer to turn it into a commercial product.  Hahs experienced some success in selling his rides to arcades and amusement parks — as well as exhibitors at the 1933 Chicago and 1939-40 New York World’s Fairs — but they remained a niche attraction.  In 1949, however, the Exhibit Supply Company engaged Hahs to design kiddie rides that it would mass produce, signalling a new phase in the business.

Initially, Exhibit followed Hahs’s lead in selling the rides to amusement parks and arcades, but the company soon felt that a better target for the product would be department stores, which generally hosted rides such as trains, boats, and ferris wheels in their toy sections during the Christmas season to lure in holiday shoppers.  Store owners were skeptical at first, but a 22-year-old entrepreneur named Matty Carbone ultimately convinced the Chicago department stores Goldblatt and Weiboldt to install a few kiddie horse rides, which proved to be a great draw, often taking in $100 per horse per week.  Other stores quickly installed their own rides, and by 1953 there were 8,200 kiddie rides in operation around the country, mostly horses, but also other conveyances like cars, boats, and rocket ships.  Exhibit Supply remained a leading firm, but Bally invested heavily in kiddie rides as well.  By 1959, the popularity of kiddie rides and similar amusements had paved the way for yet another new arcade venue, the playland, which would be situated in a high traffic area of a department store, discount house, or shopping center and offer a full range of coin-operated rides and games aimed at children.

Hank Ross

Hank Ross, co-founder of the Midway Manufacturing Company

The new demand for arcade pieces to fill fun spots and playlands aided the growth of the last significant coin-operated amusement manufacturer founded before the dawn of the video game era, and the first such company since the start of the Great Depression not established to focus on pinball.  Mechanical engineer Marcine Wolverton, who went by “Iggy” because many people considered Marcine to be a girl’s name, designed aircraft ordinance during World War II and then entered the coin-op industry after its conclusion, briefly working at jukebox maker Wurlitzer before landing at the United Manufacturing Company.  In 1947, he was joined there by electrical engineer Hank Ross, who had previously worked for Exhibit Supply.  When United began to encounter difficulties in the late 1950s, Wolverton and Ross, regarded as two of the company’s top designers, decided to strike out on their own.  Scraping together $5,000 dollars, they formed an equal partnership in October 1958 based in the Chicago suburb of Franklin Park, Illinois, called the Midway Manufacturing Company, named for the nearby Midway Airport.

Wolverton and Ross planned to survive as a small company in the highly competitive coin-op industry through a low overhead factory operation that would allow them to undercut competitors on price.  To that end, they leased a small 5,000 square foot manufacturing facility and fabricated most of their factory installations and game parts themselves.  Working long hours at the plant during the day, both men also attended night school to brush up on business.  In January 1959, the duo began production of their first game, a shuffleboard with a rebound feature called Bumper Shuffle, followed in May by a unique game called Red Ball in which the player presses buttons to launch balls at a bingo-style play field in the hopes of arranging them in various configurations to score points.  In 1960, the company scored its first major hit with a pellet shooting game called Shooting Gallery and thereafter focused largely on gun games and pitch-and-bat baseball games, also adding a shuffle alley line in 1966 after moving to a larger facility in nearby Schiller Park.  In 1964, Midway introduced two important innovations to Dale-style shooting games through a wild west themed game called Rifle Champ, automatic speed control that causes the targets to speed up as the player scores more points and targets that appear to glow through the use of fluorescent paint and a black light.   Glowing targets became standard in most target shooting games going forward, one of the few major innovations in an industry beginning to show signs of stagnation.  By 1965, Midway’s innovative game designs and manufacturing skill had brought the company enough success that the trade press recognized the firm as one of the “big five” manufacturers of coin-operated amusements alongside Gottlieb, Bally, Williams, and Chicago Coin, the only significant companies to survive — and sometimes just barely at that — a brutal shakeout of the industry in the late 1950s.

Historical Interlude: The History of Coin-Op Part 3, Pinball

Many novelties, attractions, and games have graced the arcade over the course of 140 years, from peep shows, to music players, to target shooting games, to video games, but only one has endured from the industry’s earliest days to the present day: the game of pinball.  While the modern form of this classic game bears no resemblance to the earliest bagatelle games that pioneered the form in the 1870s, the idea of guiding a ball around a playfield full of obstacles to score points has resonated with the arcade-going public like nothing else introduced by the inventors and moguls in the field of coin-operated entertainment.  From the trade stimulators of the 1890s to the wildly popular pintables of the 1930s to the flipper machines of the 1950s and the solid state machines of the 1970s, pinball has been redesigned many times only to fall on hard times and then return again stronger than before.  With the general decline of the arcade in the western world in the present day, pinball no longer wields the influence it once did, but it is probably fair to say that without the allure of the silver ball during the dark days of the Great Depression, the video arcade game industry would have never existed, and the evolution of the interactive entertainment industry would have been vastly different.  Here then, is the history of pinball from its origins through the bingo machines of the 1950s.

NOTE:  Here is another historical interlude, the third in a six-part series on the history of the arcade before the dawn of the video game era.  Principle sources this time around were Automatic Pleasures by Nic Costa, Pinball 1: Illustrated Historical Guide to Pinball Machines by Richard Bueschel, the Encyclopedia of Pinball Vols. One and Two by Richard Bueschel, Pinball! by Roger Sharpe, Bally: The World’s Game Maker by Christian Martels, and the articles “Ballyhoo,” “A Visit With Harry Williams,” “Evolution of the Bumper,” “The Evolution of the Flipper,” and “Pinball Literature (Part 2)” by Russ Jensen.



Montague Redgrave’s original Improved Bagatelle Board from 1871, the immediate forerunner of pinball

In the sixteenth century, a wide variety of lawn games gained favor in both England and France that incorporated mallets, balls, arches, and pins.  Perhaps the most prominent of these were lawn bowling and several early variations of what eventually became croquet.  Over time, these games were miniaturized and transformed into table game variations that could be played indoors.  One of the most popular of these new table games was billiards, a croquet variant in which a mallet was used to knock a ball around a table through various scoring arches and holes.  After Louis XIV of France became an avid billiard player, variations of the game began to spread rapidly, including a 1710 version called “Scoring Pockets” in which the scoring holes were protected by pins to make shots more difficult.  In 1777, a further variant incorporated a steeply inclined table and a flat cue stick while featuring a pin layout that made direct shots at the scoring holes impossible.  Instead, the player would shoot the ball up the side of the table, which would then fall back through the nest of pins and, hopefully, land in one of the scoring holes.  Debuted at a party held for Louis XVI of France by his brother, the Comte d’Artois, at the Château de Bagatelle, the new game of bagatelle soon became a sensation.

When France intervened on the side of the colonists in the American Revolution, many French soldiers brought Bagatelle tables with them, introducing the game to what would soon become the United States. The game became fashionable among landed gentlemen in the new Republic and could be found in inns and taverns across the nation.  It also proved popular as a game for soldiers, helping bagatelle spread across the ever shifting American frontier.  By the 1830s, the game was being miniaturized again, transformed into a tabletop game for children.  France and Great Britain dominated this new segment of the industry, while the United States slowly grew to be the leader in bagatelle tables, fueled by the growing number of bars and saloons that accompanied Western expansion.  This process culminated in the work of a British inventor living in the United States named Montague Redgrave. In 1871, Redgrave, then living in Cincinnati, patented what he called his “Improvements in Bagatelle” in which he replaced the clay balls common in toy variants with glass marbles and incorporated a spring-loaded plunger to replace the cue stick.  Redgrave’s improvements allowed the large, bulky table game to be reimagined as a countertop game, which spurred continued growth in the game’s popularity not only as an amusement, but as a gambling device as well.


The Log Cabin from Caille Brothers, one of the first popular coin-operated bagatelle games

In Europe, where fully automatic games of chance faced greater restrictions than in the United States, bagatelle-style gambling games rose to prominence in the 1890s.  Like bagatelle, these games featured Redgrave-style plungers and a nest of pins, but the playfield sported a vertical rather than a horizontal orientation, which was derived from fairground “drop case” games in which a ball would be dropped onto the playfield and navigate a series of pins before settling into a scoring trough along the bottom of the cabinet.  The first widely popular gambling game of this class was the Tivoli, deployed by leading British firm Haydon and Urry in 1892.  In this game, a player inserted a coin that would come to rest against a spring-loaded plunger.  The player would then launch the coin onto a playfield, where it would navigate through rows of pins before being deposited into one of several troughs.  Some of these would deposit the coin directly in the cash box, four of them would return the coin to the player, and one would trip a lever to deliver a cigar.  In 1900, British inventor John Pessers deployed a popular drop case variation called the Pickwick, in which the player controlled a movable cup and tried to catch the ball after it navigated the pins.  Various drop case games remained in production in Europe into the 1930s.

While the pin-based gambling games of Europe presaged interest in coin-operated bagatelle, their vertical orientation and extra features such as cups ultimately placed them in a different class of product.  The first known coin-operated bagatelle game was developed by Charles Young, a York, Pennsylvania, billiard hall owner.  A former newspaperman, Young had already deployed a cast iron cigar cutter of his own design before turning his attention to the bagatelle table.  In 1892, young patented his “Coin Game Board,” the earliest known device to incorporate an inclined horizontal playfield enclosed in glass and covered in pins, a spring-loaded plunger, and a coin acceptor.  Few inventors followed Young’s lead, but one bagatelle-style game particularly popular in the period was the “Log Cabin” trade stimulator released by Caille Brothers in 1901, which combined the gambling elements of the drop case games with a horizontal bagatelle field.  Bagatelle trade stimulators were largely overshadowed by the more popular slot machines in this period, however, and the penny arcade remained primarily a venue for peep shows and testers, so the appearance of Log Cabin and a few similar games ultimately failed to lead to a wider adoption of coin-operated bagatelle in that time period.  Once the arcade became a place for games of skill in the late 1920s, however, coin-operated bagatelle returned and quickly prospered.

The Birth of Pinball


Whiffle, the game that launched the pinball craze

Shortly before Christmas 1930, a Youngstown, Ohio, carpenter named Arthur Paulin was cleaning out his barn when he discovered an old board with carved out holes and roughly thirty nails in it. After fiddling around with his discovery for a few days, he came up with the basic design for a Bagatelle-like game he called Whiffle. With Youngstown particularly hard hit by the Depression due to the closing of several steel mills, Paulin’s finances were tight, so he decided to make the new game a Christmas gift for his daughter, Lois. When neighborhood kids began lining up around the house to play the game, Paulin thought he might be able to sell it and approached a friend named Myrl Park, who operated a drug store. Park did not think the game would sell as a consumer product, but figured it might take in good money if transformed into a coin-operated game. Paulin therefore took the board to another friend, electrical salesman Earl Froom, who helped him design a coin slot, a ball return, and a glass enclosure among other features. Completed around the middle of January 1931, the final game consisted of a sloped playfield encased in glass with a series of scoring holes surrounded by pins.   For a nickel, the player received ten balls that he could launch with a spring-loaded plunger that would deflect off the pins and into the holes, which each had a specific point value. The game was test-marketed in Park’s store, and after it took in $2.60 of nickels in a single hour, the three formed a partnership called Automatic Industries on January 28, 1931, to sell the machine all over the country. Before long, they were booking orders for over 2,000 Whiffle games per month, but could not manufacture boards fast enough to meet the demand.

Whiffle was the first coin-operated pin game to be sold in the 1930s, but it was actually the second one developed.  Belgian immigrant George Deprez worked as a janitor in Chicago, but he was a carpenter by trade and interested in building and marketing his own children’s toys.  In the summer of 1929, Deprez created his own marble pin game, and when it proved immensely popular at parties, he had it patented under the name Whoopee, then a hit Eddie Cantor-fronted Broadway show.  The Depression ended Deprez’s hopes of raising capital to sell the new game himself, but in June 1930, Whoopee piqued the interest of a tenant in Deprez’s building, Nick Burns, who ran a shooting gallery and marketed games with his brother through their In & Outdoor Games Company.  Burns bought the rights to the game and placed it on test in several Chicago hotels.  At the Chicago Loop Hotel, the Western Advertising Manager for coin-op trade publication Billboard, Jack Sloan, discovered the game and not only advised Burns to attach a coin slot to the table, but also hooked him up with several local area coin machine industry suppliers to help transform Whoopee into a coin-operated amusement.  First tested in August 1930, Whoopee became the first nationally marketed pin table when Billboard ran an advertisement for the game in its March 28, 1931, issue, with copy written by Sloan himself.

Whiffle and Whoopee were both popular, but they were also expensive — selling for over $100 per cabinet — and their creators were not able to manufacture them quickly enough to keep up with demand.  Together, these two factors opened the door to competition.  Perhaps the most intriguing of the early copycats was Charles Chizewar.  Born in Warsaw and trained as a locksmith, Chizewar immigrated to Chicago in 1916.  After being fired from a job for asking for a raise, Chizewar established his own machinery repair shop in the early 1920s and soon expanded into light manufacturing.  In 1929, he established the Hercules Novelty Company to enter the coin-op field and experienced immediate success with a popular grip tester.  With the arrival of the new pin games, Chizewar deployed his own version in May 1931, the Roll-a-Ball.  Chizewar established an economic model more suitable for the Depression, selling his tables for a mere $16.50 and releasing a version that gave the player five balls for a penny instead of the traditional nickel.  Unfortunately, while Chizewar’s machines were cheap, he could not manufacture them any faster than his competitors — quickly falling behind the demand — and his tables were not well crafted.  Therefore, while the Hercules innovation of penny play proved vitally important to the industry, the company ultimately failed.


Baffle Ball, the game that launched the pinball industry

Throughout 1931, pin tables were gaining adherents in certain parts of the United States, but a lack of reliable manufacturers served to inhibit the game’s influence and reach.  The man who finally transformed the pin table business from a struggling cottage industry into a dominant force in coin-operated amusement was David Gottlieb.  Born in May 1900 in Milwaukee to Russian Jewish immigrants, David Gottlieb served in World War I and then spent two years at the University of Minnesota. Gottlieb left school in 1920 to work as a movie theater booker and traveling salesman based in Minneapolis before relocating to Dallas, Texas, two years later, where he rode the rails bringing punchboards, pressed paper boards full of holes each containing a slip of paper that listed a cash or merchandise prize, to isolated oilfields. Tired of lugging around suitcases full of coins and sleeping with a gun under his pillow, Gottlieb soon turned to the motion picture business instead, carting a film projector around Texas in a Model T to show films in towns too small to have their own cinema, while also pedaling slot machines and countertop games.  When Texas cracked down on slot machines, Gottlieb acquired the rights to produce a countertop grip tester. On the advice of his childhood friend Al Walzer, who owned a coin-op manufacturer and distributor in Minnesota, he relocated to Chicago, where with a loan from Walzer he formed D. Gottlieb and Company in 1927.

Gottlieb initially worked with Chizewar to manufacture the tester at his machine shop, but when it proved popular, Chizewar established Hercules to sell the machine himself.  Gottlieb subsequently began his own manufacturing operation to create and market a competing product called the Husky Grip Tester. College educated and business savvy, Gottlieb grew his business rapidly, moved into a new modern factory on Chicago’s West Side in 1930, and gained a reputation for a well-run manufacturing operation.  This attracted the attention of entrepreneurs Nate Robin and Al Rest.

Robin, a Jewish immigrant, operated a small coin-op repair shop and refurbished slot machines.  When he first saw Chizewar’s Roll-a-Ball, he realized there could be great profit in designing his own version of the pin game and partnered with Rest, a key player at the Lawndale Sash and Door Company, to create his own version called Bingo.  The pair set up a small manufacturing operation, but like so many others before them quickly fell behind demand.  The pair therefore gave Gottlieb exclusive manufacturing and distribution rights to Bingo, which he completely redesigned to improve the quality and make it easier to manufacture.  First advertised by Gottlieb in September 1931, Bingo proved so popular that not even he could keep up with the orders, so he subcontracted manufacturing to another firm managed by Jack Keeney.


Jack Keeney, one of the earliest coin-op distributors

Born in Jefferson, Iowa, in 1892, Keeney learned the coin trade early from his father, John B. Keeney, who began operating Mills slot machines at the turn of the twentieth century and established the J.B. Keeney Company, one of the first regional coin-op distributors, to sell machines across Northern Iowa.  When Jack and his brother William entered the business, John Keeney changed the name of his company to Keeney & Sons.  Jack gave up what could have been a promising football career to work for his father at age seventeen after graduating high school and led the expansion of the company into Minnesota.  As the Keeney family continued to grow its business over the next few years, their distribution territory eventually spanned from Detroit to Seattle.  In 1916, Keeney & Sons moved from Jefferson to Chicago to be closer to the coin machine manufacturers and inaugurated a mail order distribution business that allowed the company to sell machines across the entire United States and become the largest distributor in the nation.  John Keeney retired in 1926, but the firm continued to operate under Jack and William until November 1933, when it was terminated.  A new firm, J.H. Keeney and Company, replaced it in January 1934.  In 1931, the Keeney brothers were just starting their own manufacturing operation, so they were happy to take on Bingo for Gottlieb.  With both Gottlieb and Keeney producing Bingo, the pin game soon became one of the leading coin-operated products in the Midwest.

With Bingo proving such a massive hit, Robin and Rest reneged on their exclusive deal with Gottlieb when they were approached by a Chicago tool and die maker named Leo Berman, who started manufacturing the game in competition with Gottlieb.  Unlike Gottlieb, Berman made deals with distributors across the United States to sell the game, allowing the pin game to break out of the Midwest and become a national sensation for the first time.  Faced with this new development, Gottlieb returned to the drawing board and created his own pin game called Baffle Ball, which was better engineered and used higher quality components than Bingo.  He also set up a more efficient manufacturing operation based on the assembly line method that had transformed the automobile industry, making Baffle Ball the first pin game to achieve true high volume production.  Released in November 1931 through Keeney, with a Gottlieb version following soon after, Baffle Ball‘s combination of high quality and assembly line production allowed it to dominate the competition and become the first blockbuster pinball table.  Before long, Gottlieb had taken over 75,000 orders for Baffle Ball, and even at a manufacturing peak of 400 cabinets a day, could only fill roughly 55,000 of them.


Ray Moloney, the founder of the Bally Manufacturing Company

In 1931, when Whiffle Board and Bingo started spreading around the country, no pinball games were shown at the annual coin machine trade show. In 1932, with Baffle Ball a national sensation, roughly sixty games crowded the show floor, and over one hundred pinball games were introduced over the course of the year. Of the many people to enter the market that year, two stood above the rest: Dave Rockola and Ray Moloney.   A Canadian by birth, Rockola owned a cigar store as a young man, but he moved to Toronto and then Chicago to work in the slot machine industry when he realized that the slot machine at the store counter took in more money than the store itself.   In 1927, he established the Rockola Scale Company to market his own coin-operated scale, which later changed its name to the Rock-ola Manufacturing Company. In the middle of 1932, Rockola released a pinball game called Juggle Ball that gave the player a limited amount of control once the ball entered the playing field via a sliding arm mechanism with a metal bumper that ran through the middle of the cabinet. While this game proved a failure that left Rockola $120,000 in debt, he convinced his creditors to lend him more money to produce a more traditional pinball game, released in August 1933 as Jigsaw, which sold over 73,000 units and became a hit not only in the United States, but in England and France as well. In 1934, Rockola had another huge success with a baseball-themed game called World Series that moved over 50,000 units.

Born in November 1899, Raymond Thomas Moloney, Sr. spent his early adult life
wandering the country while tackling a variety of jobs, trying his luck in the oil fields of Texas and Oklahoma, harvesting crops in California, and working in sugar refineries in the South.  Ultimately, he returned to Cleveland to work in a steel mill where his father served as the foreman. After losing that job, Moloney relocated to Chicago in 1921 where his brother-in-law secured him employment in a print shop making punchboards like those Dave Gottlieb was hauling around Texas.  He became close friends with a co-worker named Joe Linehan, so when Joe and a partner named Charlie Weldt bought out the firm to create the Joseph P. Linehan Printing Company, they placed Moloney in charge of the punchboard operation in 1922. The trio named the new punchboard subsidiary the Lion Manufacturing Company after deciding to make use of stationary ordered from Linehan Printing by a company of that name that had never picked it up.  In 1925, the trio bought out one of the suppliers of prizes for its punchboards and established the Midwest Novelty Company as a subsidiary of Lion to distribute coin-operated products such as slot machines and trade stimulators via mail order.  Moloney served as president of Lion and Midwest Novelty, while his partners remained focused on the printing business.


Ballyhoo, the game that launched Bally

When Baffle Ball took off, Moloney realized the future of the industry was in pin games — at least in the short term — and attempted to secure a steady supply of Baffle Ball cabinets for Midwest Novelty.  When Gottlieb could not supply games fast enough, however, Moloney hatched a scheme to manufacture his own.  At first Linehan and Welt refused to back a manufacturing operation, but Moloney persuaded them to provide limited funding on the condition that they could pull out as soon as they recouped their initial investment.  All three partners believed they were just taking advantage of a passing fad and planned to end manufacturing when they had cleared $100,000.  In November 1931, Moloney began working his network of coin-op contacts to find a new game design, leading freelance designers Oliver Van Tyle and Oscar Bloom to walk into his office looking for a royalty deal on a new pingame.  Moloney liked their game, but felt the prototype was too plain to sell as is.  To make the table more eye-catching, he designed a colorful playfield based on the cover of the December 1931 edition of satirical magazine Ballyhoo.  Not wanting to risk their existing business, Moloney, Linehan, and Weldt incorporated a new subsidiary of Lion to produce the new machine on January 10, 1932, and named it the Bally Manufacturing Company.  Released under the name Ballyhoo and backed by aggressive advertising, Moloney’s game rocketed Bally to the top of the industry as the firm sold 50,000 units in just seven months.  A second hit, Goofy, followed before the end of the year, and the next year, Bally released a third hugely successful game called Airway that played a critical role in expanding the popularity of pinball to Europe and included the first example of a primitive totalizer, which allowed the player to keep track of his own score.  In Airway, each scoring hole could only be entered once, which would cause a reel to flip and display the value for the hole.  At the end of the game, the player could add up the exposed values to determine his final score.

Several factors aided the rise of pinball to the top of the new coin-op amusement industry. First, unlike most contemporary coin-op games like the elaborate diggers and Chester-Pollard sports games, pinball cabinets were cheap. Ballyhoo and Baffle Ball only cost $16.50 per unit, and machines from smaller outfits could run even cheaper. Therefore, even at the height of the Depression a would-be operator could scrape together the funds to buy a few machines and enjoy a significant return on investment via coin drop.  Indeed, a significant number of entrepreneurs lost their businesses in the early years of the Depression, but did not necessarily forfeit their entire savings, and many of them invested in pinball machines and other countertop games to make a living, leading to a surge in operators and jobbers of coin-operated equipment.  Furthermore, pin tables were small and able to fit on a countertop, making them suitable for many different types of business establishments desperate to try anything to lure customers into their shops.   Finally, with no moving parts other than the plunger, early pinball machines were easy to keep in working order.   As a result, pinball could be found nearly everywhere, not just in Sportlands, arcades, and amusement parks, but also in roadside stands, bus and rail depots, gas stations, cafés, drug stores, tobacco stores, and barber shops. The game received its biggest boost, however, when Prohibition finally ended in 1933 and pinball became a staple of the bars and taverns that could once again operate legally.

Pinball Evolves


Harry Williams, brilliant pinball innovator

With pinball so popular and competition so fierce among the two hundred or so companies that released at least one pinball machine during the 1930s, it did not take long for the simple game to become increasingly sophisticated as engineers began looking for any edge to help them stand out from the crowd.  As a result, by the end of the 1930s, pinball had evolved from a small, simple game with few moving parts to an action-packed electromechanical exhibition of flashy sights and sounds.   Several people and companies contributed to this transformation, but the most important pinball innovator of the decade by far was Harry Williams.

Born in New York City in 1906, Williams moved with his family to Los Angeles when he was fifteen years old. Although he graduated from Stanford with an engineering degree, Williams took employment as an artist in the advertising industry, but found himself out of work with the advent of the Depression in 1929. He supported himself by turning to carpentry, set design, and the occasional bit part in Hollywood films, but the recently married engineer had great difficulty making ends meet.  Desperate for a better source of income, Williams answered an ad offering sales of a new coin-op game called Jai-alai, in which the player attempted to flip a cork ball into a basket.  The salesman for the game convinced Williams that all he needed to to was plop a game on location and financial success would follow, so he bought five of the $100 machines, which used up all his savings.  In reality, his machines fared poorly.  Some time later, Williams observed a long line of people waiting to play Whiffle Board in a lunchroom near Universal Studios and realized he had backed the wrong horse, but at this point he had no money to buy any more machines. He therefore decided to try building his own pin game and bought out the owner of a company called Automatic Amusements in early 1933.
Williams’s first product was a replacement board for a Mills game called Official that he sold for five dollars and could be substituted in existing cabinets. He then created his first original game in the second half of 1933, Advance, which he sold to Seeburg. Advance contained the first of many Williams innovations: a metal ball on a pedestal that would dislodge if the player banged on the cabinet too forcefully in an attempt to make his ball enter a scoring hole.   According to Williams, he initially called this innovation the “stool pigeon” until he observed a patron exclaim, “Damn it, I tilted it” after activating the device and decided it should be called the tilt mechanism, though this story may be apocryphal. Regardless of the origin of the name, the tilt soon became a standard device on all pinball machines, although later games replaced the ball with a pendulum device. Despite the innovation, Advance did not sell particularly well, and Williams received little in royalties on the game from Seeburg.


Contact from Harry Williams and Pacific Amusement, the game that set pinball on its modern path

With the failure of Advance, Williams entered a period of financial difficulty and felt that he needed to create something particularly innovative to survive in the coin-op business. After contemplating the problem for some time, he finally had a eureka moment when he decided that the ball should have more “action” and that he should use electro-magnets to provide it. The game Williams crafted around this idea, called Contact, used a device called a solenoid, a coil with a magnet inside that creates opposing magnetic fields when energized with electricity, to kick the ball back onto the playfield once it entered a scoring hole, giving the player an opportunity to score more points. Williams used dry cell batteries to power his game and created a large cabinet that stood on its own legs rather than resting on a countertop, both uncommon features that would soon became standard in the industry. To manufacture the game, Williams turned to a former carburetor manufacture named Fred McClellan who had recently entered the pin game business through a new venture called Pacific Amusements. The game proved successful almost immediately, leading to constant sales calls and an idea for a practical joke. With McClellan’s phone ringing all the time as new orders came in, someone in the showroom decided it would be funny to hook up an electric doorbell to one of the solenoids in one unit so that when the ball was ejected back onto the playfield a bell that sounded just like McClellelan’s telephone would ring and he would rush to answer it. The bell proved to be an excellent attraction feature and became a standard component on the increasingly popular game. Originally able to only produce about ten units of Contact a day, Pacific Amusement opened a new Chicago plant in Spring 1934 and eventually sold over 23,000 units priced at $75.00 each. While Contact was not the first pin game to include electricity, playfield action, a tilt mechanism, or sound effects, no other game had included all of these features in one package.  Contact, quite simply, redefined the game.

In 1935, Williams left Automatic Amusements in the care of his father and headed to Chicago to work for Rockola.  While there, he designed a game called Flash that featured the first instance of a feature that would become central not only to pinball, but also to video games, the awarding of an extra play when the player reached a certain score.  The idea came about because Williams wanted to create a reward that did not involve a payout, a new fad sweeping the pinball industry that Williams was dead set against, and was implemented by a young assistant named Bill Bellah, who came up with the actual mechanism to make the concept work after four weeks of tinkering.  A mechanical genius, Bellah might have become one of the great pinball designers, but just a few months later he suffered a serious head injury during a mugging and had to be committed to an asylum.


Bumper from Bally, the game that popularized the bumper and totalizer scoring

Electricity spearheaded additional innovations on pinball machines, with the most important coming from a small Utica, New York, manufacturer called the Pacent Novelty Manufacturing Company. In 1936, an inventor named W. Van Stoeser created a completely new scoring device called the bumper, which Pacent incorporated into a bowling-themed game called Bolo. The game simulated knocking down ten pins represented by the bumpers, ten long, thin rods attached to coil springs. The goal was to make contact with every bumper, and each time the ball hit one, a corresponding pin on the backglass of the cabinet would light up to indicate that the pin had been knocked down. The new bumper concept proved immediately popular, but Pacent did not have centralized manufacturing capability and had to farm out the building of the game to several local companies, leaving an opening for others to fill the void. As a result, when Bally’s Ray Moloney saw the game in operation, he charged a man named Donald Hooker to develop an improved bumper for Bally, which was incorporated into a 1936 table called, appropriately enough, Bumper. Unlike Bolo, Bumper used traditional pinball scoring with bumpers replacing pins and holes and popularized the totalizer method of keeping score, in which a score reel on the backglass updated each time the ball made contact with a bumper.  Bally’s Bumper game helped move pinball forward in exciting new directions, but another innovation by the company proved to be a giant step backwards.

Pinball Backlash


New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia topples a pinball machine confiscated by the NYPD

In 1933, a New York distributor named Herman Seiden added a dry cell battery to a Bally Airway table in order to power a connected payout slot, which would dispense money if the ball landed in the proper scoring holes.  Seiden shared his innovation with Bally, leading company engineer Herb Breitenstein to develop a game called Rocket, the first purpose-made gambling pinball machine.  The table proved such a massive hit that Moloney decided to buy out Linehan’s and Weldt’s shares of Lion and its subsidiaries and fully commit the company to coin-op manufacturing.  Soon, all the major pinball manufacturers were releasing payout machines alongside their regular games. With the success of these prize games, Ray Moloney took further steps to bring Bally into the coin-operated gambling business with the introduction of two full-fledged gaming machines in 1936, an automatic dice machine called Reliance and the company’s first slot machine, Bally Baby. The success of these machines convinced Moloney to fully enter the gaming business with a full line of slot machines, further blurring the line between coin-operated amusements and coin-operated gambling and setting up the pinball industry for serious difficulties.

Even without payouts, pinball had already been attacked in many circles as a game that incited juvenile delinquency and petty crime and corrupted the youth. Now with the gambling connection as well, it drew attention from crusaders against organized crime, which had already taken advantage of the cash only nature of the slot machine business to take in large sums of untraceable money to fund other illicit operations. With slot machines already pushed to private clubs and casinos by law enforcement efforts to wipe out the industry, politicians believed that pinball machines were an attempt by organized crime to circumvent laws against slot machine operation, and the move to payout models only reinforced these suspicions. As a result, newly elected New York City Mayor Fiorella LaGuardia launched a campaign against pinball machines in 1934 as part of his larger fight against organized crime and began confiscating machines all over the city, while Chicago, the center of the industry, became the first major city to enact a complete ban on the operation of the machines in 1936, with Los Angeles following suit in 1939.   A group of pinball operators subsequently challenged LaGuardia’s actions in court, leading to a major victory for the New York City mayor in 1942 when New York Supreme Court Justice Aaron Levy upheld an earlier ruling from a magistrate that pinball machines were gambling devices and therefore properly subject to seizure. The ruling effectively made the operation of pinball machines illegal in New York City, although they were not formally banned by the city council until 1948.  As a result of these actions, pinball manufacturers and operators would be linked with organized crime in the public mind and be forced to wage constant battles over the legality of pinball for more than thirty years.

While the long-term effects of pinball being linked to organized crime were devastating, the entry of the United States into World War II in December 1941 provided a more immediate threat to the industry. With raw materials and parts needed for military production, the government effectively banned the manufacturing of new pinball machines by deeming the amusement industry non-essential to the war effort, so the major pinball manufacturers turned to war-related work for the duration. To fill the void, a small number of designers began creating refurbished games by recycling old cabinets and parts and combining them with new playfield designs. One of the leaders in this field was consistent pinball innovator Harry Williams. While working for Rockola, Williams met a young engineer named Lyndon Durant who quickly impressed him with his design for a new type of score totalizer. The duo left Rockola for Bally in 1937 and then joined Exhibit the next year, but with the start of the war they decided to go into business for themselves and established the United Manufacturing Company in 1941 both to refurbish old games and to seek out lucrative war contracts. In 1942, however, Williams decided to strike out on his own and sold his share in United back to Durant. The next year, he established the Williams Manufacturing Company, which refurbished old games and built radar components for the remainder of the war.

The Flipper 


Humpty Dumpty from Gottlieb, the first flipper pinball game

With the conclusion of World War II in 1945, the coin-op companies returned to pinball once more and soon began taking the game in new directions.  In 1948, Williams introduced a new type of bumper in its Saratoga game called the pop bumper that would violently kick the ball in a new direction when it made contact, which provided considerably more action on the playfield.   More importantly, however, Gottlieb’s chief designer, Harry Mabs, came up with an idea for a new type of bumper in 1947 he called the flipper bumper that would bat the ball in a new direction when activated. In November 1947, Mabs’s new bumpers debuted on his Humpty Dumpty machine, which featured three pairs of flippers on different parts of the playfield. On the original prototype, these flippers would activate automatically when the ball made contact with a switch, but Mabs discovered that it was more entertaining for the player to activate the flippers himself by pressing a button. This simple tweak transformed pinball from a game of pure chance into one that could be influenced by the skill of the player, and the entire industry immediately recognized that flippers could be the salvation of pinball and insulate the game from accusations of being a gambling device operated by organized crime. Consequently, all the major companies quickly released flipper games into the market, which became so popular that non-flipper games were rendered obsolete nearly instantly. While every company experimented with varying numbers and locations for their flippers, however, a standard configuration soon emerged from one of the smaller companies in the industry named Genco.

Brothers Louis, Meyer, and David Gensburg established Genco Incorporated in Chicago in 1931 to produce coin-operated amusements. Rather than innovate in coin machines, Genco prided itself on taking concepts developed by other companies and then building higher quality versions to carve itself a niche in the crowded pinball market.  The company’s primary pinball designer throughout the 1930s and 1940s was an engineer named Harvey Heiss, but when Humpty Dumpty hit the market, Heiss was in the hospital, and it fell to his young assistant Steve Kordek to complete a new flipper game for the company.   Kordek had only entered the pinball industry by chance in 1936 after dropping out of college to support his family during the Depression and being offered a job at the company while taking shelter from a rainstorm in Genco’s doorway. Kordek started as a solderer on the assembly line, but because he had previously worked at Zenith in high school and studied circuitry during his one year in college, he soon used his knowledge to help the game testers fix faulty designs and was placed in the engineering department as an electrician.   Heiss then took Kordek under his wing and taught him every aspect of making pinball games. The owners of the company therefore came to Kordek with Heiss incapacitated and told him to have a flipper game ready by the coin show in January.

With so little time, Kordek copied Mabs’s basic flipper design, but because Genco was a small company and Heiss had taught Kordek to be conservative in his use of parts, he decided to include only two flippers at the bottom of the playfield. Even more importantly, Kordek chose to power the flippers using direct current rather than alternating current as Mabs had done.   As a result, Kordek’s flippers were far more powerful and could propel the ball across the table unlike the weaker ones used by Gottlieb. Released as Triple Action, Kordek’s game featured flippers that faced out from the center of the table, unlike in modern tables, but in 1950, Mabs created a game for Gottlieb called Just 21 in which the flippers faced inwards, bringing pinball machines to the basic form they still exist in today.


Bright Lights by Bally, the first bingo machine

Between flippers and pop bumpers, pinball changed radically once again as the ball ricocheted around the table at high speeds and the player did his best to keep the game going through a well-placed flipper shot. By this time, however, the reputation of the game had already suffered considerable damage due to payout machines, and it had been shut out of many major cities around the United States. Indeed, not long after the first flipper machines were hitting the market, the industry became the focus of negative attention again as Bally introduced the first Bingo machine in 1951, Bright Lights. Unlike flipper games, Bingo machines required the player to try to complete a successful bingo by launching the ball with the plunger and hoping it landed in the proper holes. A bingo resulted in the player winning a prize, making this new form of pinball a gambling machine designed to bypass the restrictions on earlier forms of payout machines.  These new machines did not escape notice for long.

In 1951, the United States Congress decided to involve itself in the war on coin-operated gambling through the passage of the Johnson Act, which made it a federal offense to transport gambling devices to states where they were illegal, which at the time meant every state except for Idaho and Nevada.   The original definition of the term “gambling device” in the bill centered on slot, roulette, and crane machines, but as bingo machines continued to spread in the 1950s, the United States Supreme Court ruled in 1957 that pinball machines designed to deliver a cash payout were, in fact, gambling devices. As a result, when the House of Representatives looked to expand the definition of gambling devices found in the original Johnson Act in 1962, it proposed the outlawing of pinball entirely, though after the bill went to the Senate a compromise was reached that led to the final bill only restricting payout pinball machines instead.  As a result of this continuing negative attention, however, pinball, while remaining an important part of the coin-operated amusement industry in the 1950s, no longer held the central place it had enjoyed in the 1930s and 1940s. In its place came a series of novelty products that spent a year or two as the hot new game in the field before ultimately being eclipsed by something else.  This cycle would define the industry for the next two decades, until it was finally broken by the rise of solid state pinball machines and video games.