Full text because I did not find it online. This text appeared in monochrom #26-34 "Ye Olde Self-Referentiality".

A Game of Skill and Timing:

5 Episodes from the History of Pinball Games

by Martin Pichlmair

1 Bagatelle

The history of pinball machines begins long before the invention of the first of those games. There are a number of remarkable moments in history that lead to the emergence of pinball. One of them took place in France in the year 1777, in the county Artois, ruled by king Louis XVI's brother, the Comte d'Artois. The Comte had recently acquired a hunting lodge from his chief huntsman Comte Chimay. On a visit, his sister-in-law, Queen Marie-Antoinette, disapproved the building. She wagered against him that he would not be able to build a new Château within three months. The Comte invested over two million livres to erect a new building. And he succeeded, opening the Château de Bagatelle in time (Mills 2007). During the opening festivities, a new table game was introduced. Termed after the Château, the game was referred to as ›bagatelle‹. In the game, players would shoot ivory balls up a playing field using cue sticks. Then the balls would roll down the field, travelling trough arrays of pins and at last fall into specific pockets. With bagatelle, the first table game featuring a tilted playing field, balls, pins, and targets was born. Yet the game was no revolution, merely an evolutionary improvement. During the reign of King Louis XIV, over hundred years earlier, the first billiard games featuring pins on the playing field had proven popular. In these games, the players were to shoot balls using their cue sticks, targeting the pins in order to ricochet them into target holes. Another game that could have influenced the creation of bagatelle was ›Trou madame‹ which (nowadays) sounds like a mix between billiard, bagatelle, and croquet. No game is without heritage, none without influence on those that follow.

2 The hereditary genius

Similarly, in the years following its invention, a number of games were derived from the primary ingredients of bagatelle - balls, pins, and an inclined playing field. Yet before that happened, a radically different use was found for bagatelle's table layout. In the 1870s, Francis Galton, half-cousin of Charles Darwin and jack of all trades, invented the quincunx, also known as bean machine or Galton box. The inclined playing field of the quincunx is covered with interleaved rows of pins. A number of balls are dropped from the top and bounce off randomly from the pins on their way down the slope. On the bottom of the machine they are collected in pockets exactly one ball wide. Since the balls randomly bounce left or right from each pin they hit, the balls arrange according to a binomial distribution, resulting in an approximation of a bell curve. The more pins, the closer a binomial distribution approximates a normal distribution, hence a bell curve. Francis Galton allegedly took inspiration for his device from bagatelle (Pritchard 2006). During the same years, Galton applied his achievements in statistics on a different field of science. Fascinated by the writings of his cousin, Charles Darwin, he researched methods of statistically analysing hereditary patterns leading to his controversial book ›Hereditary Genius‹ (Galton 1869). In his last years, his firm believe in applied Darwinism as a method lead to the novel ›Kantsaywhere‹. The book describes a utopian place where a eugenic religion supports the breeding of smarter and fitter humans. At the same time, Galton was one of the first advocates and scientists of fingerprint analysis and thus one of the founding fathers of biometry.

3 Pachinko and Payazzo

The French army brought the game of bagatelle (and its predecessors) in their colonies. Until 1754, Ohio was dominated by the French. More than hundred years later, British born inventor and toy-maker Montague Redgrave lived in Cincinatti, Ohio. In 1871, Redgrave was granted a patent for a much improved version of bagatelle. He equipped bagatelle with a plunger, thus abolishing the cue sticks. The plunger would shoot the ball up the inclined playing field. He also made the game smaller so that it fit on a bar. If a customer wanted to play Redgrave's version of bagatelle, he would simply buy a number of balls at the counter, insert the balls, and shoot them up the playing field with the plunger. In the years to follow, different kinds of pin games spread all over the world. In the early 20th century, Pachinko machines emerged in Japan and Payazzo in Finland. Although their origin is unknown, they share a lot of similarities with American pin games of the time. Pachinko machines feature small metal balls, a plunger, pins on the playing field and slots where the balls come to rest after their travel through the pins. Some slots make the player loose the ball, some make her win. Payazzo is essentially the same game but it is played using coins instead of balls. Also, the pins are removed. The game plainly consists of dropping a coin into a machine and watching it fall into a slot. Thus, Payazzo machines are clearly gambling devices. While gambling is legal in Finland, it is forbidden in Japan. There, upon winning, the pachinko player is awarded with extra balls. Yet a first-hand account tells a different story:

»After spending about $20 dollars in about 10 minutes playing this game and finally winning a considerable sum of metal balls, we thought we should get more than two mechanical pencils encased in plastic. Our Japanese colleagues then dragged us outside the mall where the Pachinko parlor was located. They took us to window that had a sliding metal cover over it - this was located on the outside of the mall about a half block away from the Pachinko parlor. Our friends hit a call bell next to the window, and a woman opened the window and took our two new pencils and handed us 5000 yen - about 50 dollars at the time. We were much happier with the money, but it was pretty obvious that the Japanese had found some legal loophole to legally gamble for money.« (Reed 2007)

4 The golden age of pinball machines

It took another 60 years from Redgrave's patent to turn bagatelle into the first pinball machine. In 1931, the company Automatic Industries introduced Whiffle (sometimes also called ›Whiffle Board‹ or ›Whiffle Ball‹), the game that introduced the coin slot, rendering the bagatelle machine a coin-operated device. Whiffle was only a moderate success, but the idea of coin operated pin machines immediately got momentum. In Chicago, Nate Robin and Al Rest started to design their own machine based on the concepts introduced in Whiffle and called it ›Bingo‹. In 1931 they showed their game to Dave Gottlieb, then manufacturer of a coin operated grip tester, who liked it so much that he bought the design in order to take over production. In the same year, Gottlieb designed Baffle Ball, the pinball machine that launched the industry. In the depression era, the crowd was eager for cheap enterteinment. Gottlieb's machine charged only one cent for ten balls. Gottlieb's success lead to a surge of entrepreneurs seeking profit in the pin game industry: Rock-Ola, Bally Mfg. Co. and Mill's entered the business. And in 1932, Mill's advertised its gaming machines as "Pin Ball" games, introducing the name under which all future games would be known.

In the following year, 1933, Bally introduced a game called ›Rocket‹. Rocket had significant impact on the fate of the whole pinball industry because of one new feature: It had a mechanism that paid out coins directly to the player if she shot into specific holes on the playfield (Jensen 2007). This invention, that was quick to be copied by other pinball manufacturers, rendered pinball machines gambling devices. During the years to come, the history of pinball games in America is dominated by new legislatures forbidding them and an industry continually finding loopholes in the laws. A detailed account is given in Jensen's (2007) remarkable text on the history of pinball and gambling.

In the same year that Bally introduced its payback game, 1933, another big name of the pinball industry appears on stage: Harry E. Williams designed a then revolutionary machine for Pacific Amusements Co. - Contact - before forming his own company. Contact was the first pinball machine to feature electricity instead of mere gravity to affect the voyage of the ball. While all pinball manufacturers continued to invent, the next leap in the evolution of the game was again by Gottlieb. In their 1947 game ›Humpty Dumpty‹ Gottlieb first introduced flippers (or ›flipper bumpers‹). This machine featured a total of six flipper bumpers spread all over the playing field. Gottlieb announced the machine as a »game of skill and timing«. While there had been means of player control in previous pinball games, the flipper was soon prevailing them. It made the player feel in charge of the machine. A new level of balance between luck and dexterity was reached.

5 Death and afterlife

In the late 1990s only one of the big three pinball manufacturers was left: Williams. Gottlieb had been bought by Columbia Pictures in 1977, which was itself acquired by Coca Cola in 1983. Gottlieb's follow-up company, Premier Technology, closed its doors in 1996, their last pinball machine being ›Barb Wire‹. In 1988, Wiliams had bought Bally, which had merged with Midway in 1982, forming WMS Industries Inc. The breakdown of the large manufacturing companies was a direct result of the decline in pinball sales. People turned to video games much rather than to pinball machines. In a last effort to revive pinball, the engineers and designers of Williams in Chicago, Illinois, introduced a radically modernised version of the game in 1999: Pinball 2000. The main new feature was an embedded TV screen to show scores and animation during play. It can only be regarded as a twist of fate that the last pinball game to be produced by Williams was called ›Star Wars: Episode I‹. Since then, only a hand full of independent small pinball game manufacturers left.

Yet the heritage of pinball lives on. In 2004, the German art group fur built the pinball machines based media art piece ////furminator, a first person pinball. In this Art Game, the player sticks her head into a hole below an elevated pinball machine. She can thus experience a game of pinball from the perspective of the flippers (Fur 2004). In 2006, Nintendo released Odama, one of its last games for the GameCube platform. In Odama, the player plays the role of a medieval general, commanding troops on a battlefield. The general also possesses a legendary weapon called Odama. The Odama is a giant ball that rolls over the battlefield smashing everything that crosses its path. As expected, the ball is operated using two flippers. While the game was no success in sales, its innovativeness was well received. My own interest in pinball games currently culminates in an art project I am realising together with Fares Kayali: For the piece ›bagatelle concrète‹ we bought a pinball machine from the 1970s in order to transform it into a music instrument. As loud as a futurist noise machine, bagatelle concrète hopefully lives up to the history of pinball machines.


Fur (2004) ////furminator. http://www.fursr.com/details.php?id=57pid=57

Galton, F. (1869) Hereditary Genius. http://galton.org/books/hereditary-genius/

Jensen, R. (2007) PINGAMES AND GAMBLING -An Historical Survey-. http://members.aol.com/rusjensen/gambling.htm

Mills, I. (2007) Parc & Château de Bagatelle, Paris. http://www.discoverfrance.net/France/Paris/Parks_Gardens/Bagatelle.shtml

Pichlmair, M. & Kayali, F. (2007) bagatelle concrète. http://bagatelleconcrete.attacksyour.net

Pritchard, C. (2006) Bagatelle as the inspiration for Galton's Quincunx. BSHM Bulletin: Journal of the British Society for the History of Mathematics, Volume 21, Issue 2 July 2006 , pages 102 - 110.

Reed, D. (2007) A little about the machines, and who makes (made) them. http://faculty.ccp.edu/faculty/dreed/campingart/pachinko/about.htm