By Russ Jensen

How can you dare a pinball? If you know the name of the game and the manufacturer and have a list of names and dates you can just look it up. But if you don't have such a list, or only have a description of some of the physical or playfield features of the game, you must resort to other means. The following is a discussion of some of the telltale signs which will often enable you to approximate the date of manufacture of any given game to within at least a few years.


Before we talk about how to date a game, let's talk about how not to. Probably the most common mistake made by the uninformed when trying to determine the date of a machine is to go by patent numbers, The most common place patent numbers are found is on the coin chute. This is the worst place to find reliable dating information because coin mechanisms have been around a long time and a patented feature may have been developed in the 1920's or even before. The only information you can gain from the patent number is that the game in question was made sometime after the latest patent dare appearing on it.


Since this column deals primarily with "vintage” pinballs (those made before I960) most of the discussion will deal with that period. First, however, a few words about the dating of machines. Also, as was mentioned in this column in March, in June 1936, two major changes occured in pinballs around I960 which make it fairly easy to tell if a machine was made before or after the 1959-1961 era. Sometime in I960 wooden side rails gave way to stainless steel. Also about that time, score-indicating lights gave way to digital scoring reels, Gottlieb produced a digital scoring game (Universe) in 1959, reverted back to light scoring for awhile, but by mid-1960 went completely to reel scoring. Williams, on the other hand, did not go to reel scoring until mid-1961. Two exceptions to the use of light scoring in the 1950s were: 1) Multiple player games made in the mid and late 1950s used score reels, and 2) Williams made several single player games in 1953 with reel scoring. These can be easily spotted however, since they used extra zeros so the scores would run up into the millions.

Around 1965 another major change occured. All games made before that date (except for some with automatic ball lifting motors) had a lever on the front of the cabinet used to raise the ball to the playfield and contained five separate balls. In 1965 tins lever was eliminated and a ball-return solenoid was used to return an out ball to the plunger for re-use. The absence of this ball lift lever will therefore indicate a game made in the post-1964/65 era.


Games made in the decade of the fifties are probably the hardest to date since few major changes occured during that period. All amusement pinballs had flippers and scores which ran into the millions, except for multiplayer reel scoring games. The first multi-player game was made in 1954 (Gottliebs Super Jumbo), therefore all wood rail multi-player pinballs were made between 1954 and the end of the decade.

Two other changes which took place during the fifties were the introduction of metal legs and the "sling-shot kicker." Metal legs replaced wooden ones on pinballs in mid 1956. This, however, may not always be a good way to date a game today since the legs may have been changed in later years. The slingshot kicker was introduced by Gottlieb in late 1951, but it appears that Williams did not adopt its use until a year or two later. Williams also waited until about 1952 to convert from "push-in" to "drop-in" coin mechanisms. Therefore, pre-1952 Williams machines can be identified by push-in chutes.

WWII TO 1950

During the period from the end of World War II to 1950, several changes were made in pinball, making games of this earlier period easier to date than games of the fifties. The most signficant of these changes of course was the introduction of the flipper by Gottlieb on Humpty Dumpty in December 1947. Within a month or two all amusement pinballs had this revolutionary new device.

After flippers, the next significant development was "pop bumpers" in late 1948. By mid-1949 virtually all pins were so equipped. Also in the late forties the switch to drop-in coin mechanisms began. United was the first in 1949, followed shortly by Gottlieb. As mentioned earlier, Williams was the last to make this change.

Another characteristic which can help in determining the date of games made between 1946 and 1950 is the value system used in scoring. When pinball manufacturing began again after the war, the score values at first were the same as before the war. Maximum scores ranged from 40,000 to 90,000. The first change to this was in 1947 when scores reaching into the hundreds of thousands were used. Then, late in 1947, Williams introduced games with scores going into the millions. By the beginning of 1949 all manufacturers had adopted "million scoring" and this was true of all non reel-scoring games to come.

Most games made in 1946 can be separated from those made before the war by the fact that they had “kick-out holes." The only exception ^o this seems to be a few games put out by Exhibit just prior to the start of the war.


Pinballs of the period between 1939 and 1941 can generally be described as having tall backboards, (about the height of those today), some form of bumper, and no kick- out holes (except for the few Exhibit games previously mentioned). About the only way to distinguish between these years is the style of bumpers used. Because a future column will detail the development of the bumper, styles of this period will only be mentioned briefly now.

The earliest form of bumper-the spring bumper-will be found on games of this period from all manufacturers until the later part of 1939 and by many up until late 1940. By the end of 1910, or early the next year at the latest, all manufacturers were using the molded plastic bumpers of the type common throughout the rest of the forties, the fifties, and even later.

Scoring in this period was almost always by lighted panels on the backglass with scores in the hundreds, thousands, and ten thousands. Some of the earlier games of the period used projected scores on the backboard either in increments of 1 or 10.

The games of 1937 and 1938 had spring type bumpers. Most of the earlier games had short backboards (approximately 6 to 10 inches in height), but by 1938 many had tall backboards.


Pinballs of the "pioneer period," 1932 to 1936, are probably the easiest to date, with the possible exception of the 1946 to 1949 era. The scoring objective in almost all games of the early period was the hole in the playfield, until the introduction of the bumper at the end of 1936.

Most of the games in 1936 were counter-top models with only holes and pins on the playfield. A few had legs later in that year, and stands were also available as an optional accessory on some of the earlier models.

By 1933 most machines came equipped with legs, but the games still had passive holes and no type of action.

In 1934 games with battery-operated kickers or "guns" started to appear and by the second half of the year many games had such action devices. By the end of 1934, electric lights could be found on the play-fields of a few games. This year also saw the introduction of bells on a few models.

Most pinballs of 1935 had electric kickers and lights, either on the playfield or on the short (approximately 3 to 4 inches high) backboards which started to appear on many games. By the later part of that year about 1 out of every 3 games made had some form of backboard. Also that year, the switch from battery power to "house current" (A.C.) began.

In 1936 the number of games with backboards increased rapidly as did the use of A.C. power, which, by the end of the year, was used on most machines. Also, as was mentioned in this column in April, in June of 1936 Rockola introduced a game with an electric light indicating score totalizer which would become the common method of pinball scorekeeping until the end of the fifties.

The year 1936 was also very important because in December Bally introduced the bumper to pinball! The hole was no longer the principal scoring objective.

Depending on the period involved, the information presented in this column should enable anyone to determine the date of a given pinball to within one to seven years.

Suggestions, questions, and exceptions are welcomed by the writer. Keep those cards and letters coming, folks! Write Russ at 1652 Euclid Ave.,Camarillo,CA 93010 or in care of Amusement Review.

Use back to return to prior web page