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From Wizard to Whimper: The Rise and Fall of Pinball

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What could be more American than pinball? A true twentieth-century cultural icon, pinball probably conjures images of Happy Days, 50s diners, and rock opera Tommy -- but perhaps t ought to make you think of ruff-clad European aristocrats, too.

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Bagatelle - Nikki Tysoe

Bagatelle, one of the many games that inspired pinball, is first recorded not in a cheery amusement park, but at a party attended by France's Louis XVI, in 1777, at a
Parisian chateau. Played on an inclined seven-foot board covered in pins and holes, bagatelle isn't very different from today's pinball tables, minus the
complex electronics. Players launched their balls from the bottom end of the board using long, pool cue-like sticks, aiming to land them in numbered holes.

Take bagatelle, mix it with the immensely popular Japanese gambling game pachinko (which is distinguished by its vertically-set board), sprinkle in some American
technological innovation -- a spring here, a plunger there -- and pinball is

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Vintage 1930s pinball machine - Photo:

But when they first appeared in the 1930s, early pinball machines didn't bear much resemblance to
today's hulking, electronics-packed games. The very first wasn't even called a pinball machine; made in 1931 by Automatic Industries, it was a mechanically-operated
wooden game called "Whiffle." With no bumpers, flippers, ramps, or score-keeping, it was a basic affair, but proved a moderate success nevertheless.

Check out some great pinball video games

Throughout the 30s, pinball machines rapidly became more high-tech, and by the close of the decade
two competing firms, Gottlieb and Bally, had honed the design into something
far more recognizable to modern gamers. The machines were free-standing,
incorporated electric mechanisms to track scores, and had the same prominent,
decorated backboards that persist in today's designs.

Other issues would keep the pinball industry from hitting the big time during the 1940s: resources, manpower, and factories all had better things to do than churn out parlor
games. But once the fog of war had lifted, it was Gottlieb that would cue the
next major advance by creating electrically operated, player-controlled
flippers, first appearing in 1947's Humpty Dumpty. At the time, the invention
was dubbed "the greatest improvement in the history of pin games."

It spurred a flood of innovation and advancement. Pinball machines sprouted multiple flippers, electrically powered bumpers, motorized moving targets, and every other bell
and whistle their designers could dream up. And as they got bigger, brighter, and louder, the popularity of the game grew.

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Pinball hall of fame, Las Vegas, NV - Bobak Ha'Eri

But where there's gaming, there's gambling, and where there's gambling, there's lawmakers.
Pinball was to prove no exception. Thanks in part to unscrupulous bar owners (who allowed pinball players to "cash out" free games they won) and suspicious legal eagles who categorized the tables as games of chance, not of skill,
pinball was prohibited in New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, and other major American cities for a good thirty years. Most bans ended by the 1970s, although they apparently still linger in some scattered jurisdictions.

The disco decade also ushered in the microchip revolution, and although that would vastly
simplify the design and construction of pinball machines, it'd also prove to be
their downfall. Even as Bally, Gottlieb, and comparative newcomer Williams were
heaping synthesized sound, multiball, and complex lights into their machines,
bar owners were switching them out for the latest craze: smaller, more
profitable game machines with names like Space Invaders, Pac-Man, and Missile

Although pinball would enjoy a brief renaissance in the 1990s, as arcade machines began to
disappear from public spaces, the die was cast. While more advanced technology
pushed pinball designers to the peak of their creativity, turning out machines
with complex dot-matrix displays, intricate, Rube Goldberg-like playfields, and
mode-packed scoring systems, the 90s saw the shuttering, one after the other,
of the major manufacturers. The last, Williams/ Bally/Midway, would
unexpectedly cease pinball machine production in October 1999, opting instead
to concentrate on those coin-operated gambling machines you see everywhere in

Nowadays, there's only one maker of pinball games left on the planet, Stern Pinball, which still operates a factory outside Chicago. It's currently taking orders for just three
machines -- pinball takes on Iron Man, Avatar, and The Rolling Stones -- and if
you want one, it could be yours for around $5,000.

But if you're looking for that pinball machine you remember from your youth, you might still be in luck. Many were produced in quite significant numbers; The Addams Family
-- a Bally/Midway machine released in 1991 -- remains the best-selling pinball
machine of all time, selling a touch over 20,000. Popular machines remain relatively
easy to find, although prices typically don't differ too much from one of Stern's new-production machines. Still, if there's a pinball machine-sized hole in the corner of your man-cave, and you have a few thousand dollars to fill it, your dream machine could be just an eBay auction away.


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