Total Nerd The Bizarre History of Pinball  

Jonathan H. Kantor
13 items

When most people think about pinball, they think about a harmless hobby or past time. It's just an arcade-type machine where you get points by bouncing a metal, silver ball around a big machine full of lights, bleeps and bloops. Nothing too crazy right?

Well, we did some digging. And it turns out pinball is a little more interesting and controversial than we originally thought.

Pinball Used to Be Illegal

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Photo: nizz7/flickr/CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0

Americans typically associate pinball with days of youthful revelry spent at the arcade or boardwalk, but playing the game used to be a highly illegal activity. In the early days of its invention, pinball was considered a form of gambling, and in the early '40s, countless machines were tossed into the Hudson River as a result. The history of pinball is an interesting tale of an entertainment form thriving, despite being publicly banned. 

Unlike other controversial games, laws were actually passed to discourage people from playing pinball, which caused the game to become a countercultural symbol in the '70s. While today, pinball has mostly been relegated to PC emulation, new machines are occasionally released. In a few US cities, pinball machines are still very much illegal. 

In 1942, The Mayor Of New York Declared War On Pinball

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Elected in 1934, New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia's main promise was to "clean up New York City." After spending the better part of a decade dumping slot machines into the Hudson River, in 1942 LaGuardia took aim at a new craze sweeping across America: the coin-operated pinball machine. 

Coin-operated pinball first premiered in America in 1931, and before long, pinball was pulling in more money than the movie industry. Since the devices offered players the chance to spend money and win prizes, many people (including LaGuardia) saw pinball as a new form of gambling. 

LaGuardia ran a hard campaign against pinball machines, banning them from stores and ordering raids against the city's underground pinball parlors. As a publicity stunt to help his campaign attract attention, in 1942 he famously dragged a pinball machine down to the Hudson River, where he smashed it with a sledgehammer. The ploy worked, and he remained mayor until 1945, with pinball machine destruction continuing after William O'Dwyer took over the position that year. 

Pinball's supposed relation to gambling expanded beyond the cash prizes often handed out for high scores. Allegedly, some prominent pinball distributors had ties to the New York mob, although this rumor has never been definitively confirmed. However, the stories were prevalent enough for LaGaurdia to take notice, and in January 1942, he was quoted describing "pinball machine pushers" as "a slimy crews of tinhorns, well dressed and living in luxury on penny thievery." (It was a simpler time.) The games continued to be heavily regulated until 1976.

Pinball Has Been Around Since The 1700s

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Photo:  Wuselig/Wikimedia Commons

While modern, flipper-based pinball didn't exist in 18th-century France, French players did enjoy an extremely similar game that can be considered the ancestor of pinball. Bagatelle was a popular game among the French aristocracy, as it was playable indoors and did not require a second participant. 

The game featured a long playfield contained in a wooden cabinet, with wooden pins situated throughout. Players knocked balls with a stick resembling a pool cue, the goal being to land balls in the pockets inlaid at the far end of the field. The game was incredibly popular, and some speculate French soldiers brought bagatelle to America when they provided reinforcements during the Revolutionary War.

Throughout the 1800s, bagatelle's popularity spread all across the US. In 1863, bagatelle was even included in a political cartoon featuring Abraham Lincoln and General George B. McClellan during the Civil War. Variations on the original game began popping up, adding additional challenges or thematic elements to differentiate one board from the next. One popular version from the early 20th century approximated a baseball diamond, and allowed players to shoot balls into holes representing bases, foul ball areas, and home run zones. 

At First, Players Could Win Prizes For High Scores

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Photo: Ctrics/Wikimedia Commons

When coin-operated pinball machines first hit the scene in 1931, you could play for a nickel, and high scores often earned fabulous winnings. Attendants awarded prizes for displays of skill, which ranged from cigars or candy, to free games, to cold hard cash, depending on the establishment. While signs were often posted to declare the machines were "for entertainment only," the exchanges looked a lot like gambling to politicians and concerned parents.

While some machines were presumably just about having fun, others, such as the Bally "Bingo machines" introduced in the late '40s, were inarguably for gambling purposes. These machines featured a slew of numbered holes, all of which correlated to positions on a Bingo-style scorecard above the playing field. When a ball landed in a hole, the spot on the scorecard lit up, and if players lined up three or more lights, they'd receive a payout. Since the machines didn't usually have bumpers, the trajectory of the balls was almost entirely random, which made playing the game feel remarkably close to traditional gambling.