Pinball History: Before The Flippers


As we wind down the year in the midst of the Christmas and Winter holidays, I'd like to tackle a more recreational topic. This is a totally awesome type of game that's of interest to me personally. The topic I speak of is the history of pinball. The entirety of pinball history will be more than I can cover in a single post. What I will cover today is the birth of the first pinball games. Pinball is a hobby of mine and hopefully you will have fun reading a little about the history.

Pinball History:  Before The Flippers

Some of you that may follow my other blog or my Facebook are probably already aware of my fascination with the uncanny pinball machine. When I was visiting Las Vegas over the summer, I had the opportunity to visit the Pinball Museum. This museum holds over 150 pinball machines ranging from solid state display modern marvels to older electro-mechanical games with traditional playfields. While strolling up and down the aisles of machines, I came across a funny looking table. The game was titled as Jigsaw, more commonly known as the “World’s Fair Jig-Saw” from 1933. It appeared to be an oddity. It had no bleeps. It had no bloops. The table lacked flippers. What manner of beast was this?

        Jig-Saw: A Piece of Pinball History

        Jig-Saw: A Piece of Pinball History

I stepped up to the machine and plugged a quarter into the game. It gave me tiny steel balls and a mechanical plunger. When I quickly slid the plunger into the woodwork, one of the adolescent pinballs would shoot out into a slingshot arc around the playfield. The ball would plink down around a series of metal pins, eventually landing in a hole with an assigned point value. Finally, the action of the ball falling down the hole would mechanically drive a mechanism that cause a part of a picture to appear. If I were to score all of the points, it would become clear that the picture formed was from the 1933 World’s Fair. It was also clear why this little beauty was so popular in it’s day. Despite the lack of flippers and sound effects, this game had class and charm.

Going All the Way Back

The Jig-Saw can trace it’s lineage to the earliest games that more closely resemble pool or billiards than pinball. Around the 1830s, in France, miniature billiard tables appeared with an angled playing field. Sticks or cues would then be used to hit small marble sized balls into pins. The landing score was frequently wagered on, earning it a reputation in some circles as a gambling machine. These little table games shrunk further into machines known as Bagatelle games. These were especially popular with American servicemen deployed overseas.

In 1871, the inventor Montague Redgrave developed a mechanized Bagatelle game to be sold for the parlor rooms of wealthy socialites; featuring an early rudimentary spring-loaded plunger. The confectionary company Necco Sweets licensed and awarded models of the 1876 Redgrave Original Parlor Bagatelle in one promotion. Throughout the 1880s and 1890s, production of the Redgrave Bagatelles expanded to include bells on the tabletop. Additional facilities were opened in Jersey City and Philadelphia to produce more machines. Popularity of the Bagatelle game reached its height in the early 1900s when it was featured in the Sears Roebuck & Co. catalog.

By 1931, the Bagatelle table game was ready for the next innovation. Automatic Industries introduced a new concept to pinball by adding coin operated play. Mechanizing not only the payment, they also added a mechanical ball recovery mechanism within the table. These developments allowed for increased play efficiency and automatic sales through coin collection; increasing the appeal to the public. These innovations were included in the game Whiffle, which is regarded as the first Pinball Machine. Following in Whiffle’s footsteps came other mechanical hits like the 1931 Gottlieb Baffle Ball, the 1931 Bingo, and the 1932 Bally Ballyhoo. Then came Jig-Saw...

To this date, the 1933 Rock-ola Manufacturing Corporation World’s Fair Jig-Saw is the bestselling pinball game of all time. It sold over 70,000 units. It was the culmination of decades of experience in the creation of fully mechanical pinball machines. It was also the end of an era; as electrical machines ushered in a new age for pinball in 1934.

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