According to my father, who misspent his youth as thoroughly as I am trying to misspend mine, pinball machines didn't always have flippers. When he was a boy, he says, the machines allowed you only the use of the plunger--you shot the ball up to the top, and then watched helplessly as it rolled down the board. Is this true? (Not that I doubt my father, but he is given to strange flights of fancy.) If so, was this supposed to be fun, or what?
Illustration by Slug Signorino
Show some respect, my son. We children of the 1990s, constantly on the prowl for “kicks” and “action,” require nonstop razzle-dazzle if we are not to become bored. But our ancestors were more easily amused. They were still able to take pleasure in the majestic forces of nature, such as gravity. This explains the appeal of flipperless pinball, which is actually a modern variation on the age-old game of bagatelle. It was said to have been invented by the ancient Greeks, who used to amuse themselves between Socratic dialogs by rolling balls down the side of a hill, aiming for holes dug along the route. By the time the Renaissance bloomed, the game had been adapted to tabletop play: the object was still to drop balls in holes, but the balls were propelled from the bottom of an inclined playing board by means of a cue stick. The holes were protected by an arrangement of pins, which sealed off the easy shots. The game remained popular through the end of the nineteenth century, when interest began to flag.
Pinball as we know it began in 1930, when David Gottlieb–a name that should be revered by every pinball aficionado–designed a small (16×24 inches) coin-operated bagatelle board he named “Baffle Ball.” Instead of a cue stick, the game used a built-in plunger, the same simple but elegant device that survives today. For a penny, the player enjoyed the spectacle of shooting seven balls to the top of the machine and watching fatalistically as they rolled down and fell (or didn’t fall) into the scoring holes. Soon, the players developed a technique politely known as “nudging,” which consisted of slamming the board from side to side in an effort to influence the ball’s progress. Nudging did not become the fine art it is today until 1933, when the British Hardinges Company introduced an alarm bell that went off with a deafening roar whenever the machine was “tilted.”
Pinball increased in popularity through the 30s and the manufacturers vied with each other to give the game more action and greater ball control. In 1933, the Rock-Ola Company (now remembered as a manufacturer of prophetically-named jukeboxes) introduced a game called “Juggle Ball,” which featured an early prototype of the flipper in the form of a metal rod that ran the length of the board and could be used to point the ball from hole to hole. The Bally Manufacturing Company countered with “Fleet” in 1934, the first board to use the electric kickers called “solenoids” responsible for the frenetic action of today’s games. But Bally’s greatest triumph came in 1936, when the scoring holes were first replaced by bumpers on a board titled, with great originality, “Bumpers.”
Unfortunately, all was not well in the world of pinball. Just as the game was riding the first crest of its popularity, authorities began a nationwide crackdown on slot machines. The greedy manufacturers of the one-armed bandits promptly invaded the previously unsullied pinball industry, and began marketing a bastard version of the pinball machine known as the “bingo.” These machines were nothing more than thinly-disguised slot machines that took advantage of a loophole in the law defining gambling devices. To qualify as a gambling device, a machine had to offer a “thing of value”–money, merchandise, or tokens–as a reward. What bingos offered instead was the chance at free games. You could play a game for one coin (nowadays it’s a quarter or more, but for a long time you could find dime machines), or you could put in two coins and increase your free-game payoff if you won (odds were printed on the backboard). I’m told that ten coins yielded the optimum payoff, but there were also many other tantalizing payoff gimmicks, called features, which you could activate by feeding in still more coins. Twenty coins gave you an odds-on chance to win something.
The game itself was a 20 or 25 hole playing field with posts. The numbered holes corresponded to lights on the backboard which in turn comprised a bingo game. Three, four, or five games in a row on the backboard won a specified number of free games. If you put in the maximum number of coins and won 300 games you’d have to stick around all day to work them off, but in many of the sleazy venues in which bingos were found the proprietor was always glad to “take the free games off” and convert them to cold cash. Three hundred freebies at two bits per (it was less in the early days, of course) would thus net you $75.
Needless to say, this emphasis on money was a gross perversion of the original spirit of pinball, which celebrated athletic grace and determination. The authorities were quick to recognize the change. By 1935, bingos had been banned in New York, but not before they had driven legitimate pinball purveyors to the brink of bankruptcy. The death blow came on January 21, 1942, when–after the New York cops decided it was too much trouble to make the distinction between bingos and pinballs–Bronx magistrate Ambrose J. Haddock, ruled that “all pinball machines are illegal even if they reward the player with nothing more substantial than amusement.” In subsequent raids, 3,252 machines were confiscated and destroyed and their metal parts (including 3,000 pounds of balls) given to the war effort. Other cities followed New York’s example.
But the manufacturers of true pinball machines did not give up. In 1945 after the war ended Bally went back into production with a game designed to add a new element of ball control. Called “Nudgy,” the board featured a button on the side, which, when pressed, would jerk the entire playfield backwards, sending the ball back to the top of the machine. It was a dismal failure, apparently because the players resented this electronic intrusion on their carefully honed nudging skills. It took the far-reaching mind of one Harry Mabs, a designer for the Gottlieb company, to come up with the ultimate ball control device–one that added a new element of skill to the game without impinging upon the player’s pride. The “flipper,” as Mabs christened his movable bumper, first appeared in October 1947 on the Gottlieb game “Humpty Dumpty.” This historic machine featured six flippers, which were gradually reduced to two in subsequent models as the players developed greater facility. The flipper proved to be the salvation of the industry. Although pinball continued to be illegal in many jurisdictions for decades afterward, the flipper made it clearly a game of skill and not of chance, and it attracted many dedicated sportsmen, such as myself, whose interest in the game was purely aesthetic. Of course, if you won 300 free games, that was OK too.
Pinball has been eclipsed by the video game in recent years, and some have rashly predicted its demise. True fans know, however, that no wimpy microchip can match the pulse-pounding pleasures of pinball: the lights, the action, the scantily-clad maidens on the backboard. Video games may come and go; pinball alone endures.
Send questions to Cecil via firstname.lastname@example.org.