Pinball Dating


By Russ Jensen

We are very happy to have this first article from Russ Jensen on pinballs. It will be a regular feature in The Coin Slot.

This article, in somewhat different form, originally appeared in AMUSEMENT REVIEW Magazine ,1853 Ashby Ave., Berkeley, CA 94703.

How can you date 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 should enable one to approximate the date of manufacture of a given game at least to within a few years.

Before we talk about how to date a game lets 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 found somewhere on it. The most common places 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 for 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 a patent number is that the game in question was made sometime after the latest patent date appearing on it.

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 this period was the hole in the playfield, until the introduction of the bumper at the end of 1936.

Most of the games in 1932 were counter-top models with only holes and pins on the playfield. A few had legs later in that year. 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 playfields 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 4 to 6 inches high) backboards which started to appear on many games. By the later part of that year about one out of every three games had some form of backboard. Also in this 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 AC power, which by the end of the year was used on most machines. In June 1936 Rockola introduced a game (Totalite) 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 in pinball history because in December Bally introduced the bumper to pinball: The hole was no longer the principal pinball scoring objective.

The games of 1937 and 1938 generally 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 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 kickout holes (except for the few Exhibit games made in late 1941). About the only way to distinguish between these years was the style of bumpers used. The earliest form of bumper, the spring type, will be found on games of this period from all manufacturers until 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 however used projected scores on the backboard with increments of 1 or 10

During World War ll pinball production was discontinued 'for the duration". The only "new games coming out during this period were "conversions" of prewar games. A discussion on conversions is beyond the scope of this article.

Most games made in 1946 can be separated from those made before the war by the fact they had 'kickout' holes. The only exceptions to this were the prewar Exhibit games previously mentioned.

The Advertising Reprint is cuurtesy of Dick Bueschel from "The Coin Machine Journal, December, 1947.

During the period from the end of Worid War II to 1950 several changes were made to pinball making games made during this period easier to date. The most significant 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 pinballs were so equipped. Also, in the late forties the switch to drop-in coin mechanisms began. As far as flipper games are concerned, United was first in mid 1949, followed shortly by Gottlieb. Williams was the last to make this change in about 1952. It should be noted that Bally used a drop-in coin acceptor on their 1-ball horse race multiple coin machines starting with VICTORY SPECIAL in late 1945.

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 manufacture 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. It is interesting to note that 'million scoring' is reappearing in some of the solid-state pinballs of 1980! 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 multi-player reel scoring games. The first multi-player game was made in late 1954 (Gottlieb's SUPER JUMBO), therefore all wood rail multi-player games were made between 1954 and the end of the decade. Williams made a few single player reel scoring games in 1953 which used extra zeros so that the scores ran up into the millions. They then reverted back to light scoring for single player games until 1961.

The other significant changes which occured to pinball during the fifties were the introduction of the 'slingshot kicker' and metal legs. The slingshot kicker was first introduced by Gottlieb in late 1951; however, it appears that Williams did not adopt its use until sometime later. Metal legs replaced wooden ones on pinballs in mid 1957. This however may not always be a good way to date a game today since the legs may have been changed in later years.

Two major changes occured to pinballs around 1960 which make it easy to tell if a machine was made before or after the 1959-1961 era. Sometime around 1960 wooden side rails (the rails that hold the playfield glass) gave way to stainless steel. Also about that time, score indicating by lights on single player games gave way to digital scoring reels. Gottlieb produced a single player 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 on single players untii mid 1961, except for the few million scoring games in 1953 mentioned earlier.

In late 1964 and early 1965 another major change occured. All games made before that (except for some with automatic ball lift motors),had a lever on the front of the cabinet used to raise the ball to the playfield, and contained 5 separate balls. This lever was eliminated at this time and a ball return solenoid added to return an 'out' ball to the plunger for re-use. The absence of this ball lift lever therefore indicates a game made in the post 1964/65 era.

The information presented in this article should enable anyone to determine the date of manufacture of a given pre 1964/65 pinball machine to within one to six or seven years depending on the era involved.

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