Pinball machines have a complex history. The roots of the modern pinball machines you use at your local cafe come from games such as croquet and billiards, which involve guiding a ball to a specific location by hitting it with an instrument. However, the true spiritual ancestor of modern pinball machines was the game of Bagatelle. Developed in France in the 18th century, the game consisted of driving the balls into the holes on one side of the board using a stick or a tail. The surface of the board was tilted and obstacles were placed 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 it. One of its additions, still visible today, is the piston: a device that launched the ball into an inclined field. However, once the ball was released from the piston, the user could no longer interact with the ball, as the fins for the pinball machine had not yet been developed. This led to individuals betting on the outcome the ball would face. As a result, pinball machines were banned in many parts of the United States, including New York City from 1940 to 1976. The ban on machines ended in a famous case where Roger Sharpe claimed balls could be controlled by skill (with the addition of fins) and were not just based on luck. On a pinball machine in the courtroom, he announced where he was going to hit the ball and proceeded successfully.
The 1930s saw a lot of innovation in pinball design. 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 also introduced around this time, such as the tilt mechanism and free games. These new features were revolutionary for the time and sparked renewed interest in pinball machines. The “Humpty-Dumpty” pinball machine was the first pinball machine to include fins. This meant that users could now play a ball for a longer period of time and introduce the whole aspect of skill and control of the ball while playing pinball.
However, with the development of video games in the 1980s, they were quickly abandoned in arcades to make way for the innovation brought by the video game industry. Many companies that had made their fortunes in the manufacture of pinball machines have been forced to close. It wasn’t until the 1990s that pinball machines made a comeback, bringing exciting innovations to machines such as complex displays and sound systems.
Yet the turn of the millennium was a turning point for the worse for pinball machines, and reported sales by many manufacturers have dropped dramatically. Most factories were again forced to shut down. Today, Stem Pinball is the only manufacturer remaining in the industry. We will have to wait and see if they are able to bring innovation to an industry that has seen so many ups and downs.