Pinball machines have a complex history. The roots of the modern-day pinball machines that you use in your local café come from games such as croquet and billiards, which constitute of guiding a ball to a precise location by hitting them with an instrument. However, the real spiritual ancestor to modern pinball machines was the game of Bagatelle. Developed in France during the 18th century, the game consisted of getting balls into the holes on one side of the board using a stick or a cue. The surface of the board was inclined, and obstacles were set in front of the holes to provide a more challenging experience. Many of these features have been adapted and can be seen in modern pinball machines.
In the 19th century an inventor named Redgrave took the design of the Bagatelle game and improved on it. One of his additions, still visible today, is the plunger: a device which launched the ball up an inclined field. However, once the ball was released from the plunger the user could not interact with the ball further, as flippers for the pinball machine had not yet been developed. This lead to individuals gambling on the outcome the ball would face. As a result, pinball machines were banned in many parts of the United States, including in New York City from 1940 up to 1976. The ban on the machines was ended in a famous case where Roger Sharpe claimed that the balls could be controlled by skill (with the addition of flippers) and were not solely based on luck. On a pinball machine present in the courtroom, he announced where he was going to hit the ball and proceeded to do so successfully.
The 1930s saw much innovation in terms of the design of pinball machines. The machines now included limited electronic functions such as basic sounds and the ability to propel the ball without the user’s force. Several new features were introduced at this time as well, such as the tilt mechanism and free games. These new features were groundbreaking for those days and sparked a renewed interest in pinball machines. The “Humpty-Dumpty” pinball machine was the first pinball machine to include flippers. This meant that users could now play a ball for a greater period of time and introduced the whole aspect of skill and controlling the ball while playing pinball.
However, with video games being developed in the 1980s, they were quickly set aside in arcades to make way for the innovation provided by the video game sector. Many companies which had made their fortunes on manufacturing pinball machines were forced to close. It was only in the 1990s that pinball machines made a comeback, bringing exciting innovations to the machines such as a complex displays and sound systems.
Yet the turn of the millennium was a turn for the worse for pinball machines, and the sales reported by many manufactures were falling dramatically. Most manufactures were once again forced to close. Today, Stem Pinball is the only remaining manufacturer in the industry. We will have to wait and see whether they are able to bring innovation to an industry which has had so many ups and downs.