Who Invented the Pinball Machine?

To many in the baby boomer generation, the pinball machine brings back a wealth of childhood memories. It seems as though the machines arrived out of nowhere in the 1950’s and were brought fully into the popular culture with their inclusion in The Who’s rock opera Tommy (featuring Elton John as the Pinball Wizard).

The true history of the pinball machine is much longer, but is still all about having fun. The first roots of modern pinball are traced back to a French parlor game of the 18th century, called bagatelle. The players would take turns shooting balls into small holes, located around the playing field, using a small cue. The game eventually made its way to the United States where it became so popular that political cartoons depicted it being played by President Lincoln. Buy pinball machines

The next step in the evolution of modern pinball can in 1870, when Cincinnati toy manufacturer Montague Redgrave replaced the small cue with a coiled spring powered plunger. This same plunger device is still in use today. By fixing the position of the plunger, the space required to play the game decreased considerably, allowing it to fit on counter and bar tops. It also eliminated much of the coordination required to play. If you could pull back on the plunger, you could play pinball.

The first true pinball machines were developed in and around Chicago around the time of the Great Depression. The units became tilted, the marbles being used were replaced by the familiar steel balls, and the classic wickets (similar to those in croquet) were replaced by pins. Pinball pioneers like David Gottlieb and Ray Moloney (founder of Bally) wanted to provide some amusement to those living through the Great Depression, and pinball was their game of choice. A few years later in 1942, Harry Williams invented the ’tilt’ device to prevent cheating and finally in 1947, the flipper was introduced by Harry Mabs (although it would be Steve Kordek who first placed two flippers at the bottom of his ‘Triple Action’ game. By the 1950’s the modern pinball machine had been born.

The technical improvements to pinball machines in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s included the introduction of drop down targets, different sized (and numbers of) flippers, different types of bumpers and improved scoring mechanisms which now allowed multiple players to compete against each other. Eventually pinball machines went electronic with computer chips replacing mechanical relays. Lighting improved, as the number of lights increased and music just added to the fun.

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