An Introduction to Pinball

An intro to pinball (French aristocrats, Great Depression, & Babe Ruth)

Tabletop or life-size, we all love the lights, sounds, and general thrill of a pinball machine, so let’s plunge into this introduction to the arcade classic.

Welcome to the ultimate pinball guide where flippers aren’t funky looking swimming shoes and a bumper isn’t referring to the part of your vehicle that minimizes the impact of a car collision.

Pinball has been around for literal centuries (we’re talking since the 1700s) and has had an interesting gamble in the “gaming” scene since. Beginning as a game that required constant lifting and tilting of the table, pinball has evolved into the bright, action-filled game we know and love today.

We know technology changed the gaming industry and games that were popular in halls and arcades — such as pinball machines — inevitably lost their appeal in comparison to at-home game rooms and online/mobile gaming. The latter were more accessible, affordable, and overall more convenient. (No clunky machines the size of Shaq stuffed into dark corners of dim lit halls.) Still, pinball partisans and modern gamers alike can appreciate the game-changing (literally) origins of pinball.

PINBALL (BAGATALLE) AND RAINY 1700S FRANCE

The history of pinball machines takes us back to France in the 1700s. Think: age of the Aristocrats; croquet being played as a social pastime; unexpected rain forcing players to stop the game and go find some other non-croquet-related social activity to do indoors.

In short: the French got tired of waiting for the rain to stop. So they came up with the idea for a game called Bagatelle. This predecessor of the pinball machine was nothing more than a board with wooden pins and a ball — but don’t undermine its entertaining abilities. 

This board-pin-ball contraption was such a great success that French soldiers brought Bagatalle to America during the American Revolution in the late 18th century!

  • OBJECTIVE: Use the plunger to propel the ball bearing up the inclined table until gravity causes it to roll back down and into a (hopefully) high-scoring pocket.

  • The various pins dotted around the table are designed for the ball to bounce off and change direction. Hence, the name “pinball.”

Related video(s): Vintage Bagatelle game forerunner to modern pinball

Prior to the glitz and glam of the arcade industry, there were more simple ways to have fun. If you haven’t already picked up on it, Bagatelle is one of these “more simple” ways to have fun. However, it deserves accolades for being the predecessor to the pinball machine. After all, its successor became the first coin-operated machine in America. So let’s get into that transition…

THE TIMELINE LEADING TO MODERN PINBALL

1871: Pinball is officially invented

Montague Redgrave from Ohio turns the century old Bagatelle game into the first pinball game. He’s granted a U.S. patent for his “Improvements in Bagatelle”, which include a coiled spring, a slope, and (smaller) marbles.  The “Parlor Table Bagatelle” game becomes popular in bars, where high scores would earn you pride and maybe a free drink.

1930s: The “coin” helps pinball become successful

The pinball machine becomes popular during the Depression in the 1930s as a result of the need for low-cost entertainment. The first automatic pinball machine hits the scene in 1931. This is when coin-operated games find their way around the U.S. entertainment market.

1940s: Pinball is banned (for almost 40 years)

Here’s the gist: In the late 1930s the first pinball machines were featured with luminescent fields that kept score. The U.S. government just couldn’t keep the game innocent and started seeing pinball as gambling. But guess what happened to make matters worse? Pinball machines started to be manufactured to cash out when winning. Of course, these adjustments to the original pinball machine were in conflict with the strict gamble laws of the U.S. at the time, so pinball machines were banned from the early 1940s until 1976. Yes, almost 40 years.

1947: The first flippers are introduced

Sure, there was a ban. But improvements were still being made to the pinball machine. This is when the flippers were introduced by Gottlieb. These days we can hardly image a pinball machine without flippers, but players previously would have to bump and tilt the machine to make the ball change direction. Although the introduction of flippers actually added skill to the game, taking away a great part of the gamble element, it was already too late: pinball was banned, associated with the mafia and seen as a dangerous distraction to children.

1977: The ban is lifted (let’s play!)

Wildly credited for “saving” pinball, Roger Sharpe — who spent his free time as an undergrad playing pinball at hangout spots — testifies in court that pinball is a game of skill, not chance. To shutdown allegations that pinball is not associated with gambling, he plays a pinball game in the courtroom. He predicts the exact movement of the ball before shooting and parallels Babe Ruth’s home run in the World Series of 1932. His performance convinces the courtroom that pinball is actually a harmless game of skill and the ban is lifted.

Related article(s): The History of Pinball in 10 Funfacts

WHERE PINBALL IS NOW / HOW TO PLAY

We mentioned this earlier: Technology changed the gaming scene. However, pinball hasn’t been completely forgotten. As with almost all century-old games, pinball has moved to the digital space where people now mostly play online. There are online pinball games for children, online pinball games with themes, and even pinball tournaments.

So, while technology was (sort of) the demise of in-person pinball gaming, it’s also created a space for pinball to remain popular. As for the actual pinball machine — they’ve mainly become a collector’s item. There’s even a Bagatelle table on the market for over $5,500!

IN CONCLUSION

The pinball machine has been through quite the development. But we can tell that from Bagatelle to online clicking, pinball is a timeless game that everyone enjoys.

Bring the arcade into your home with our wide variety of pinball machines. Let’s bring you back to your childhood… one “pin” at a time.

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