TRIBUTE TO A COIN MACHINE GREAT
By Russ Jensen
One of the true pioneers of the coin machine industry, Mr. Harry E. Williams, has succumbed to cancer at the age of 77. Harry passed away on Sept. 11, 1983 at his home in Palm Springs, California. This is certainly a great loss to the world of coin operated amusement. Mr. Williams was a part of this great industry for over fifty years, from the late 1920's until the time of his death.
Mr. Williams was a fine gentleman who loved coin operated amusement devices. Although he was primarily known in connection with pinball, he also delved into other coin-op amusement devices, even into video games in the past year or two. Pete Bilarczyk, publisher in the mid Seventies of the tabloid "Pinball Wizzard News", once referred to Harry as "the father of pinball." This title was not far from the truth when you consider his achievements in the world of pinball, only a few of which I will attempt to relate here.
Harry was an inventor! His inventions had a profound effect on pinball. Late in 1933 he invented the first "electric action" device to be used on a pinball game. It consisted of a battery operated electromagnet device which could dislodge a ball from one hole in the playfield causing it to roll into another higher scoring hole. This was introduced on a game called CONTACT manufactured by Pacific Amusement Mfg. Co. of Los Angeles. Almost immediately "electric action" was included in game after game by many different manufacturers and, in one form or another, has been used in pingames up through the present time.
Probably the Williams invention most familiar to pinball players throughout the years was the "anti-cheating" device commonly know as "tilt." In its earliest form it consisted of a small steel ball which, at the start of each new game, was made to rest on the top of a concave pedestal. If, during the course of a game, the player shook the cabinet too much the ball would fall off its pedestal, providing a visual indication that the player had "cheated." Harry named his first such device "Stool Pigeon", but soon changed the name to "Tilt."
A year or so later, when most games had become electric, a new form of "tilt" was devised in which a metal "plumb bob" would make electrical contact with a circular metal ring. This contact (through the use of an electrical "relay") would cause a lighted sign on the game to light up the word "Tilt." This form of "tilt" has been used on pingames from the mid Thirties to the present day.
It is interesting to note that not only did Harry's invention of the "tilt" have an effect on pinball, but also on our language. Most of us at one time or another have heard that word used to denote some mildly unpleasant happening or surprize upset. It has been used in comics, cartoons, and other simple entertainment devices, and by many in every day conversation. Even though "Webster" doesn't seem to recognize it as yet, Harry Williams has unconsciously affected our language.
Although not the inventor himself, Harry played an important role in the invention of the "free play" pinball. This idea helped to combat the negative image that pingames were gaining in the early Thirties as gambling devices. It seems a young man named Bill Belluh, who worked as a shop assistant to Mr. Williams in the early years, devised a method by which the attaining of a high score could result in the player playing additional games without depositing more coins. These "free games" could take the place of monetary or merchandise awards then given to many pinball players as a reward for a high scoring game. Even though Harry did not directly invent this device, he helped Bill Belluh perfect it, patent it, and get it installed on games such as Rockola's FLASH in 1935. Ever since that time "free games" have been the primary "award" for pinball prowess.
Harry was a designer, not only for his own companies, but also for others. In the very early Thirties pingames consisted of a playfield with holes drilled in it for the balls to drop into for scoring. These games had a large number of "pins" (nail-like devices protruding from the playfield to deflect the ball during play), hence the name "pinball." The "art" in designing these early games consisted primarily in determining where to strategically locate these pins making it difficult for a player to obtain too high a score and often "beat the machine." Harry became quite proficient at this art and designed some "replacement boards" (new playfields used to convert an existing game into a "new" one) as well as original games.
Harry also had quite a flair for mechanical design. He designed many games in the early Thirties, such as ACTION, which employed ingenious mechanical features. Then, after his introduction of "electric action" with CONTACT, he began incorporating electricity into his designs.
In addition to designing games for his own companies (more about those later) Harry was, over the years, employed as a game designer with other outfits. Some of his early designs were for Pacific Amusement of Los Angeles (CONTACT, etc). In 1935 he accepted an offer from Rockola and went to Chicago to become their "chief inventor." During his stay at Rockola he met a young designer, Lyndon (Lyn) Durrant who was to affect his life for years to come.
After Rockola Harry went to Bally for a short time and again ran into Lyn. Within six months or so Harry went to Exhibit Supply and Lyn came along. They both stayed with that company until World War II broke out. After that Harry was strictly involved with his own companies until after he "retired" around 1960.
Harry was also somewhat active in game design in recent years. In the late Seventies he designed some "home" pinball games for the Brunswick Corp. Then, when his old friend and ex- partner Sam Stern took over the old Chicago Coin Machine Co. and renamed it Stern Electronics, Harry designed some games for Stern.
One of the games he designed, HIGH HAND, contained another Williams invention, a rotating "flipper like" device which would move a ball from one "pocket" to another. Recently Harry started designing video games, including a combination video-pinball game which he sold to Gottlieb. To my knowledge this game has not yet been produced. Right up to the end Harry was still designing amusement games.
Harry believed in all types of amusement devices, anything that could bring enjoyment to a person. During the Fifties he made games with something a little different. He made several amusement pinballs with animated horseraces and many novel "pitch and bat" baseball games. He also designed "PEPPY THE CLOWN", a coin operated "marionette theater" in which the player manipulated the puppet.
Another novel Williams design was a "sidewalk engineer" game in which the player operated a bulldozer at a construction site. Harry even had an idea for a coin operated toy train layout which he tried out but it did not prove too successful. At any rate, his ideas for amusements were endless.
Harry was a company founder. During his lifetime he founded three separate companies. In 1934 he started his own company in Los Angeles called Automatic Amusements where he manufactured games he designed. In many cases he would make agreements with larger Chicago manufacturers, such as Bally and Exhibit, to manufacture his games for distribution in the Middle West and East, with his company supplying the West. When Harry went to work in Chicago in 1935 he left his father in charge of his company which was later disbanded.
Shortly after the start of World War II, Harry and Lyn Durrant left Exhibit and formed a new company, United Manufacturing, to repair games at first, but hoping to obtain Government contracts for war related products. That outfit also started "converting" old games into "new" ones in addition to their "war work." Harry sold his share of United to Lyn Durrant In less than a year, but the company remained a major game manufacturer up until the mid Fifties.
After leaving United Harry formed still another company, Williams Manufacturing, which was the forerunner of the current Williams Electronics. He remained with that company until about 1960 when the company was sold to the Consolidated Drug Co. of Chicago. That ownership did not last very long and the company was finally bought by Seeburg in the early Sixties. So, in a period of less than a decade, Harry founded three game producers, one of which is still in existence.
As you can plainly see from reviewing the coin machine industry career of Mr. Harry Williams, he was always a vital, productive individual. He certainly tried to improve the amusement machine, which he dearly loved, and to think of new ways to delight and entertain the American public via the medium of coin operated devices. This never stopped right up, I am sure, to the day he died.
Incidentally, an article on the life of Harry Williams was published in the August 1960 issue of the popular men's magazine TRUE. It was titled "Ungunchable Harry, King of the Pins" and was written by J.P. Cahn. This entertaining piece was well written, in a light hearted style, and told of Harry's life in the coin machine business from the late 1920's through the Fifties. While even Harry Williams himself stated that everything in this article may not have been precisely accurate, it is a good overview of his fascinating career and highly recommended reading.
Finally, if I may, I would like to end on a personal note. I had the pleasure of visiting Mr. Williams at his home in Palm Springs in March of 1978. I had called him on the phone, told him I was a pinball collector interested in pinball history, and he invited me to visit. That was probably the most enjoyable afternoon I have ever spent. Mr. Williams was extremely cordial and tried his best to answer my questions. It was indeed a memorable experience..
During that visit he told me of a couple, Jim and Candace Tolbert, who were writing a book on pinball and had contacted him for information. I contacted them and later on they talked me into writing a column for a publication they were starting called Amusement Review. This was the first time I had ever written anything for publication and I really didn't know if I could do it, but I did. And here I am still writing about pinball. I have Harry Williams to thank for my getting into writing and I am grateful.
In the years since my visit with Mr. Williams I have talked to him on the phone on several occasions. Each time he was extremely friendly and talked freely of his past associations with the coin machine industry. I learned a lot from him during these conversations and much of that information has been passed on through my articles on pinball history.
I cannot easily express the feelings of shock and sadness I felt upon hearing of this great man's passing. He did so much for coin operated amusement during his lifetime and I know his memory will live on. I certainly will never forget the thrill of my association with Mr. Harry E. Williams, "the father of pinball" and "king of the pins."
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