By Russ Jensen
One of the first pinball articles I ever wrote (actually my fourth) was published in June 1979 in a small publication called Amusement Review. The article was titled "Pinball Dating". The idea behind that article was to describe the changes in the pinball machine over the years to aid a person in determining the year of manufacture of a game he might see or have described to him. That article was reprinted a little later in the February 1981 issue of COIN SLOT.
There was one thing, however, that was wrong with that original article. That was that it was not accompanied by any photographs! For that reason (plus the fact that it has been over 10 years since it was last published) I have decided to reissue "Pinball Dating"; this time well illustrated and with a few other improvements. In fact, this article will be sort of a 'thumbnail photographic history' of the pinball machine. So here goes!
How can you date a pinball? If you know the name of the game and its 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 just have a description of some of the physical and playfield characteristics of the game (or the game is not on your list), then you must resort to other means. The following is a discussion, with illustrations, 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 however, lets talk about how not to. Probably the most common mistake made by the uninformed when trying to determine the date of a pinball machine is to go by patent numbers found somewhere on the machine. The most common place where patent numbers are found, especially on older games, is probably on the coin chute. This, however, is the worst place to find reliable dating information since 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 found on it.
THE PRE-WAR YEARS
Pinballs of the 'pioneer period' (1931 - 1936) are probably the easiest to date, with the possible exception of the 1946 to 1949 era. The 'scoring objective' in almost all cases in this early period was the playfield hole, until the introduction of the bumper in 1936.
Most of the games of 1931/32 were 'counter top' models, with only holes and metal pins on their playfields. A few had legs late in 1932, and stands were also available for some models.
By 1933 most machines came equipped with legs, but the games still had passive holes and no type of 'action'. An exception to this were a few mechanical games, such as Rockola's WORLD SERIES and JIGSAW, which had some 'mechanical action' features, powered either by the weight of the ball itself or by a spring wound up by the player pushing in the coin chute.
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 in a few models.
Most pingames of 1935 had electric kickers; many also having 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 pins had some form of backboard. Also in 1935, 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. 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 1950's.
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 of that period had short backboards (approximately 6 to 10 inches in height), but by the end of 1938 many had tall backboards.
Pingames of the period between 1939 and 1941 can generally be described as having tall backboards (about the height of those in use today), some form of bumper, and no 'kickout holes' (except for a few Exhibit Supply games made in late 1941). About the only way to distinguish between these three years was the style of bumper used.
The earliest form of bumper, the 'spring type' (see photo) which was similar to those used on Bally's BUMPER, will be found on most games of this period from all manufacturers until the later part of 1939, and by many up until late 1940. For a short period of time in 1939 a few manufacturers (primarily Exhibit and Bally) used a different style of bumper which I shall call the 'double disk type' (see photo).
By the end of 1940, or early 1941 at the latest, all manufacturers were using the molded plastic type bumpers of the type common throughout the rest of the 1940,s, the 1950's, and even later on a few games.
Scoring in this period was almost always by lighted panels on the backglass with scores in the hundreds, thousands and tens of thousands. Some of the earlier games of the period, however, used projected scores on the backboard either in increments of 1 or 10.
THE WAR, AND AFTER
During World War II pinball production was discontinued "for the duration". The only 'new' games coming out during this period were 'conversions' of prewar games. Since the style of these games was essentially the same as the pre-war games from which they were converted, the only way to tell them apart was that the 'conversions' generally had 'war themes'. This, however, is not always indicative of a 'wartime conversion' as some games with 'war themes' came out quite awhile before America's entry into the conflict.
Most games made in 1946 and 1947 can be separated from those made before the War by the fact that they had 'kickout holes'. The only exception to this were the pre-war Exhibit games previously mentioned.
During the period from the end of World War II to 1950, several changes were made to pinballs, 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 for pins was the 'pop bumper' in late 1948. By 1949 virtually all amusement pinballs were so equipped. Also, in the late Forties the switch to the 'drop-in' coin mechanism began. As far as flipper games were concerned, United was first in mid 1949, followed shortly by Gottlieb. Williams was the last to make this change, not doing so until 1952. It should be noted that Bally used a 'drop-in' coin acceptor on their 1-ball horserace multiple coin machines starting with VICTORY DERBY right after the war.
Another characteristic which can help in dating games made between 1946 and 1950 is the 'value system' used in scoring. When pingame manufacture began again shortly after the war the score values were at first the same as before the war, the maximum scores ranging from 40,000 to 90,000.
The first change in this was in 1947 when scores ranging into the hundreds of thousands began to be used. Then, late in 1947, Williams began introducing games with scores which could top ONE MILLION. 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' began reappearing on the solid-state pins of the 1980's and currently in the 1990's manufacturers are adopting scoring systems going INTO THE BILLIONS.
THE "GOLDEN YEARS"
Games made during the decade of the 1950's (often referred as pinball's "Golden Years") are probably the hardest to date since few major changes to the game occurred during that period. All amusement pins had flippers, pop-bumpers, kickout holes, and scores which ran up into the Millions (except for 'multi-player', 'reel scoring' games).
The first multi-player pingame was made in 1954 (Gottlieb's SUPER JUMBO), therefore all multi-player wood rail games were made between 1954 and the end of the decade. Williams made a few 'reel scoring' single player games in 1953 which used fake zeros so that the scores still ran into the Millions. They then reverted back to 'light scoring' for single player games until 1961.
The other significant changes made to pins during the 1950's were the introduction of the 'slingshot kicker' (sometimes called a 'kicking rubber') and metal legs. The slingshot kicker was first introduced by Gottlieb in 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 occurred to pinballs around 1960 which made it easier to tell if a machine was made before or after the 1959-1961 time frame. Sometime around 1960 the wooden side rails (the rails that hold the playfield glass) gave way to stainless steel. Also about that time, score indication by means of lights on single player games was replaced by the use of digital 'score reels'.
Gottlieb produced a single player reel 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 until mid 1961, except for the few 'million scoring' score reel games mentioned earlier.
In late 1964 and early 1965 another major change occurred. All amusement pingames made before that had a lever on the front of the cabinet used to raise the balls to the level of the playfield for shooting, 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 reuse. The absence of this ball lift lever therefore indicates a game made in the post 1964/1965 period.
Pingames made in the 1970's, up until the introduction of solid- state circuitry in 1977/78, were not too much different than those made in the late 1960's so that period is quite a bit harder to date. Solid-state pingames, of course, were all made after 1977, and are also beyond the scope of this article.
In conclusion, the information given in this article should enable anyone to determine the date of manufacture of a given pre 1964/1965 pinball machine to within 1 to 6 or 7 years, depending on the era involved.
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