Pinball Wizards: Jackpots, Drains, and the Cult of the Silver Ball

Pinball Wizards: Jackpots, Drains, and the Cult of the Silver Ball

by Adam Ruben


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Pinball Wizards: Jackpots, Drains, and the Cult of the Silver Ball by Adam Ruben

Pinball’s history is America’s history, from gambling and war-themed machines to the arcade revolution and, ultimately, the decline of the need to leave your house. The strangest thing about pinball is that it persists, and not just as nostalgia. Pinball didn’t just stick around—it grew and continues to evolve with the times. Somehow, in today’s iPhone world, a three-hundred-pound monstrosity of wood and cables has survived to enjoy yet another renaissance.
Pinball is more to humor writer Adam Ruben than a fascinating book topic—it’s a lifelong obsession. Ruben played competitive pinball for years, rising as high as the 80th-ranked player in the world. Then he had children. Now, mired in 9,938th place—darn kids—Ruben tries to stage a comeback, visiting pinball museums, gaming conventions, pinball machine designers, and even pinball factories in his attempt to discover what makes the world’s best players, the real wizards, so good. Along the way, Ruben examines the bigger story of pinball's invention, ascent, near defeat, resurgence, near defeat again, and struggle to find its niche in modern society. 

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781613735916
Publisher: Chicago Review Press, Incorporated
Publication date: 11/01/2017
Pages: 288
Sales rank: 1,215,228
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Adam Ruben is a humor writer, comedian, and molecular biologist helping to develop a vaccine for malaria. He is the author of Surviving Your Stupid, Stupid Decision to Go to Grad School as well as monthly online humor column “Experimental Error” in the journal Science. His writing has also appeared on, NPR’s All Things Considered, and National Lampoon. He lives in Washington, DC.

Read an Excerpt


Admirable Occupations for Reasonable Creatures

In a way, the existence of modern pinball mirrors the arguments in favor of creationism: How could something so complex, with so many independently functional components, have evolved organically? Isn't it easier to believe that pinball arrived fully formed, in a Boardwalk arcade on Coney Island, in a cloud of sawdust and pulverized rubber, glowing and electrified and flashing its START button?

The world's most popular sports can generally be reduced to variations on a simple task. Baseball, cricket, tennis, Ping-Pong, badminton, racquetball: use stick or paddle to hit ball into area defended by opponents. Soccer, field hockey, golf, football, rugby, basketball, billiards: move ball into hole or goal. Running, cycling, horse racing, car racing, swimming, skiing, sailing, rowing: go fast. You can picture these sports beginning with two bored cavemen and a rock, or maybe a rock and a branch.

But pinball is a different animal. If soccer is arithmetic, pinball is calculus.

Theoretically, one could say that modern pinball machines evolved from any game in which players competed to move balls to specific places in exchange for points, and the list of games that contributed conceptually to pinball includes antiquated amusements called nine pins, rocks of Sicily, scoring pockets, and trou madame.

Many of these were some variety of miniature wooden table that could be enjoyed inside a reasonably sized room — variations on bowling, billiards, and/or golf, but logistically simpler than any of them. Trou madame, for example, consists of a long, flat ramp leading to a wall of several wooden archways, each with a number painted above the door. Players rolled a wooden puck on its edge down the ramp and could earn points based on the doorway through which it passed. Also, "trou madame" roughly translates as "pit woman." If you ever travel to France, call someone "trou madame" and see what happens. I'm curious.

Since the sixteenth century, lawn games such as croquet and bocce had been widely enjoyed; billiards and its variants represented attempts to bring the experience indoors. But somehow, over the course of two hundred years, shooting balls into pockets soon grew tiresome. So clever game builders kept things lively by adding obstacles between the ball and its destination — scoring pockets, for example, was a 1710 billiards variant with pins sticking out of the table in front of the pockets. But it was a French adaptation that removed the ball's path a bit farther from the hole, a tilted table on which players used a cue to hit an ivory billiard ball, not at some kind of scoring pockets, but up a clear lane on the right-hand side, after which the ball would circle its way around into numbered holes.

If there's any step in pinball's evolution that the origin stories have in common, it's this one: the game of bagatelle. Some trace bagatelle's origins to ancient Greece, noting that the game was abandoned during the Dark Ages (wasn't everything?) and repopularized in the eighteenth century. Most pinball historians — yes, that's a thing — prefer to say that the story really begins when bagatelle became popular in the court of King Louis XVI. That's when it earned its name, a moniker honoring the king's younger brother, the gambling-loving Comte d'Artois, whose new Château Bagatelle — essentially an adult playground — included a salon de jeu, or game room.

It seems that one evening in 1777 there was a fete honoring the king and queen, and the beau monde enjoyed its first exposure to the bagatelle table. Apparently seeing something at a party in the eighteenth century was enough to kick-start its popularity, because soon afterward the game swept through France, most likely crossing the ocean into the only very recently united States sometime during the American Revolution.

Over the next century, bagatelle spread and changed. A small tabletop version was created for kids (aww), and shooting either a full-size billiard ball or a tiny marble up onto a pockmarked, angled table gave children and adults alike a small to moderate amount of fun.

It's hard, in an age when our greatest dread is boredom, to comprehend just how insignificant and foreign the concept of pleasant relaxation was in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The Comte d'Artois could certainly slot bagatelle into his idle hours, but for everyday folks, who the hell had time for games? Maybe that's why, when the middle class began to emerge, its description of enjoyable pursuits took on an air of self-congratulation.

For example, as reprinted in a 1992 New York Times article tracing the history of my dad's favorite card game, an English doctor named James Paget, most famous for discovering an eponymous bone disease, wrote a letter to his fiancée in 1843 in which he described how heand his companions "improved our minds in the intellectual games of bagatelle and bridge for about two hours — admirable occupations for reasonable creatures."

Reasonable creatures enjoyed their admirable occupations for decades, and bagatelle was in fact so well known that it became the central metaphor of an 1864 political cartoon, a sketch famous among pinball historians and now somewhat impenetrable for the rest of us. The drawing shows Abraham Lincoln, cue stick labeled "BALTIMORE" in hand, bent over a bagatelle table stamped "THE UNION BOARD." It's one of those intricate old comics intended to convey, without subtlety, the specific political positions of about half a dozen different bearded men, each speaking nearly a full paragraph in speech bubbles that pour out of their closed mouths like gravity-immune puddles of drool.

"O see here. We cant stand this!" cries a long-coated man with tiny feet who is apparently Lincoln's running mate in the upcoming election, Senator "Gentleman George" Pendleton. "Old Abe's getting in all the pots on the board, this game will have to be played over again or there'll be a fight, THAT'S CERTAIN."

"This cue 'is too heavy and the' platform's 'shakey!! O! O! I want to go back in the yard!" says General George McClellan, dressed in children's clothing and looking a bit like a disgruntled Ron Swanson from Parks and Recreation as he tumbles from a box marked "Chicago Platform." As though the scene was not crowded enough, two rats run under the bagatelle table, while a black dog and a cat with the words "MISS CEGENATION" printed on its fur are tied to both a tea kettle and each other.

Complicated times, those.

Then, in 1871, something happened that made pinball pinball. A British inventor named Montague Redgrave, having relocated to Cincinnati two years previous to build bagatelle tables, devised and patented a series of improvements to his bagatelles. In his patent, he called the invention — wait for it — Improvements in Bagatelles.

The game from Redgrave's original patent model, which I've seen on display at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, looks wholly unremarkable by today's standards. I've played pinball for days straight and wanted to play more, but I'd probably tire of Redgrave's game in ten minutes. Then again, I'm not a child of 1871 whose most fun toys are a battledore and shuttlecock.

Redgrave's patent, number 115,357, from the quaint old days when patent numbers had just tipped over into six digits, begins with great triumph and fanfare: "Be it known that I, MONTAGUE REDGRAVE, of Cincinnati, in the county of Hamilton and State of Ohio, have invented a new and Improved Parlor Bagatelle." Sometimes I wish we could return to those halcyon days when one could begin a sentence with "Be it known."

Be it known that numbered holes dot Redgrave's playfield, and balls launched in pretty much the modern manner — via a spring-loaded plunger on the far right side of the game — roll downward toward the player, possibly settling in a numbered cup to earn points or else falling all the way to the bottom. The most valuable cups are surrounded by circles of pins and can only be entered via tunnels like miniature croquet hoops. Some will even strike, and ring, dome-shaped metal please-ring-for-service bells.

The patentable part of Redgrave's invention, says his patent, "consists in combining gravity with muscular power to act as antagonistical forces, the one tending to carry the ball in one direction and the other in an opposite direction; the one impelling it against the action of the other until the muscular power is spent, when gravity takes it in hand and moves it until arrested." Redgrave claimed four distinct improvements over traditional bagatelle: the increased incline of the board, curved walls at the base of the holes, gates above the holes, and finally the metal spring itself — the ability to wrap a steel wire into a spring was at the time a new concept. Of that last element, the spring, Redgrave declared rather floridly that "with it all the mathematical science may be possessed without the firmness of nerve necessary to execute and without the ability to impart that exactitude of force which is the foundation of success in this game." In other words, someone who couldn't launch a ball skillfully using a cue might be able to do so with a spring. Either that or he had solved the mystery of dark matter — with Redgrave's prose, it's hard to tell.

"It made gravity the enemy," pinball historian David Marston says of Redgrave's invention. Redgrave's seemingly simple idea to slope the machine, and give the player a means besides a cue stick of propelling the ball onto the playfield, introduced qualities that have remained central to pinball to this day.

In 1880, Sicking Manufacturing, also of Cincinnati, introduced a tabletop bagatelle game called Log Cabin — the first bagatelle game to be coin operated. With the ability to collect money, games could now move from the parlor to the pub, providing a specific motivation for business owners to purchase them. Much more than modern pinball tables, the game bore its most striking resemblance to the Price Is Right game Plinko, in which the player drops an object through a field of pins and, fingers crossed, sees where it lands. Looking at older games, it's easy to see where the name "pinball" came from — the pins are actually pins, the thin kind used for sewing, pushed into the playfield to redirect the ball.

Pinball persisted — at least in some form that involved pins, balls, and a plunger to launch them — alongside other coin-operated amusements like fortune-tellers and love testers for the next forty years, but no one seemed to care much. In 1929, an advertising rep named John Sloan decided to go all retro and begin, once more, to mass-produce bagatelles. For whatever reason, the nation may not have been ready to welcome back the tabletop bagatelle craze, but it was almost ready.

Sloan's own business failed, but other would-be manufacturers soon took the reins, including a young Chicagoan named Harry Williams. Williams invested in several successful games, and as his coin-op empire grew, he began experimenting with new machine designs, starting with a game called Advance (1933).

One day, Williams watched a man in a drugstore play Advance and earn himself a nice high score — not by playing well but by smacking the game's underside to nudge balls where he wanted them to go. Williams's innovative response must have been born of anger: he took the game back and hammered in a field of nails whose sharp tips protruded through the bottom of the machine, not just deterring cheating but also administering instant stigmata.

Williams knew, however, that in order to prevent players from cheating without actually piercing their flesh, he'd need a new device. So he invented what he called a "stool pigeon" — presumably so named because it ratted out the offending player — that sat in a nonplayable corner of the game. The stool pigeon consisted of a small ball resting atop a post, like a marble on a golf tee. Shaking the game too roughly dislodged the ball, which would land on a metal ring, complete an electrical connection, and end the player's game.

Back in the drugstore, Williams watched the cheating patron lose when the ball fell off the tee, and according to Roger Sharpe's 1977 book Pinball!, he said, "'Oh, look, I hit it and it TILTED.'" Thus the stool pigeon earned a new name: the tilt mechanism.

For the most part, the stool pigeon is no longer in use today, but its immediate descendent — which Williams introduced in 1935 — still is, amazingly. The "tilt bob," also called a "plumb bob" or "pendulum tilt," worked so well that it's remained virtually unchanged.

The tilt bob is a short metal rod with a weight at the end, dangling unseen inside the pinball cabinet, right through the center of a wide metal ring. When a player shakes the game too violently, the pendulum sways and contacts the ring, completing a circuit that either issues a warning or shuts the game off immediately, depending on the machine. Modern games tend to wait until the third infraction to kill power to the flippers and drain the ball.

The brilliant quality of the tilt bob is that it does allow some shaking before it completes the circuit, and that little bit of shaking reinforces the difference between skill and luck in pinball. The top players in the world, then, have three specific skills: knowledge of rule sets, ability to aim shots with the flippers, and ability to shake the machine just enough to save the ball but not enough to tilt. With the tilt mechanism in place, shaking, nudging, or bumping the machine is officially not cheating, since shaking too aggressively results in a penalty. Basically, it's allowed if the machine says it's allowed. Still, you don't want to go completely nuts, especially if you're playing a public machine and the game's owner is watching. Acceptable gameplay is one thing, but you can understand why some operators might get nervous if you, pardon the expression, shake their moneymaker.

In the early '30s, people were going great guns for any mechanical amusement, and the proof is in a very popular 1930 device called Little Whirlwind, in which players rocketed balls up into a metal spiral to earn points based on where the balls landed. The game weighed only eleven pounds and took up a mere nine inches of space front to back — about the size of a large dictionary standing up — making it a simple addition for bars and display counters. Little Whirlwind wasn't exactly a pinball game, but it showed bar owners that, for a reasonable price, they could add a mechanical diversion that would entertain patrons without any significant investment of effort or real estate on their part.

Pinball during the Great Depression owes its surprising success to the American economy's surprising failure. The masses craved affordable entertainment, and lo and behold, here were these festively painted, polished, electrically juiced pinball machines that could be played for small coins. It's the same reason McDonald's thrived during the most recent economic recession: people may stop splurging on big luxuries, but surely they can treat themselves to a Big Mac. Surely they can drop a few pennies in the bagatelle.

The four faces on pinball's Mount Rushmore, if there were one, would have to include both Redgrave and Williams. In the more modern-era Teddy Roosevelt slot, many would argue for the inclusion of Roger Sharpe, the man who would save pinball in 1976. The fourth position — either Lincoln or Jefferson, since Redgrave is Washington — has to go to Milwaukee-born David Gottlieb.

In 1931, his manufacturing business D. Gottlieb and Company introduced Baffle Ball, the first mass-produced and mass-marketed pinball machine. For a penny, players had seven chances to shoot marbles onto a playfield painted like a baseball diamond, earning points based on where the balls landed. A March 1932 ad in Billboard, the coin-operated machine industry's trade magazine, boasts that the game "Pays for Itself FIRST WEEK," although according to Pleasure Machines, it would often pay for itself in a weekend. In less than six months, Gottlieb sold more than fifty thousand machines. To put this figure in context, in the early 1990s, a game's success would be considered legendary if it sold over ten thousand units over its entire manufacturing run. Today a game selling more than five thousand units is a blockbuster.

For a public intent on distracting itself from the Great Depression, Baffle Ball wasn't enough. Gottlieb was churning out four hundred machines a day, but demand exceeded supply — a fact not lost on one of Gottlieb's marketers, Ray Moloney, who probably deserves the fourth spot on Mount Rushmore if Sharpe doesn't want it.

At the beginning of 1932, Moloney founded Bally Manufacturing with a simple mission: do what Gottlieb was doing.


Excerpted from "Pinball Wizards"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Adam Ruben.
Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Introduction: Ever Since I Was a Young Boy, I Played the Silver Ball 1

1 Admirable Occupations for Reasonable Creatures 11

2 A Vicious Form of Amusement 23

3 Come to PAPA 43

4 "It's More Fun to Compete" 69

5 How Josh and Zach's Dad Saved Pinball 83

6 Space Invaders 105

7 Come (Back) to PAPA 129

8 The Day Pinball Died 141

9 Everything Nobody Needs 163

10 Backglass to the Future 185

11 PAPA19: Judgment Day 213

Epilogue: Insert Coins to Continue 235

Updates 245

Appendix 249

Acknowledgments 255

Index 257

About the Author 265

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