WHAT IS PINBALL?
By Russ Jensen
What is pinball? According to Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary, a "Pinball Machine" is "an amusement device in which a ball, propelled by a plunger, scores points as it rolls down a slanting surface among pins and targets." The Random House American College Dictionary defines pinball as "any of the various games played on a sloping board, the object usually being either to shoot a ball, driven by a spring, up a side passage and cause it to roll back down against pins or bumpers and through channels which electrically record the score, or to shoot a ball into pockets at the back of the board."
In comparing these definitions, certain key similarities are seen. These common elements are (1) ball, (2) propelled by a plunger (driven by a spring, (3) rolls down, (4) a slanting surface (sloping board). These four features result in a basic definition of pinball which includes all true pinball games ever made.
An important consideration is what types of games, sometimes referred to as "pinball," are eliminated. The requirement for a ball eliminates such games as rifle games, video games, and puck bowlers not to mention "flasher games" (gambling type games in which winning is solely determined by a randomly lighted number or symbol(s) ).
The requirement for the ball being plunger propelled (which, incidentally, is this writer's "rule of thumb" for determining which games are true pinballs) eliminates baseball (pitch and bat) games, which in many ways physically resemble pinballs and are often erroneously referred to as such. This characteristic also eliminates the so called roll down games. Two general types of roll down games were made, primarily in the mid-forties. One type used wooden balls, about the size of tennis balls, which were rolled by hand down a wooden playboard with scoring objectives at the far end. The other type was actually a modification of a standard pinball machine in which the normal steel balls were handled by the player who rolled them up the top glass (beneath an extra top glass) until they reached an opening at the far end where they would drop onto a normal pinball playfield and roll down as in the normal plunger version of the game. While this latter type is very close to being a true pinball, it must be eliminated since the ball is not plunger propelled. On a historical note, these roll down games were invented by the industry as legal to operate in areas where pinball machines were outlawed as being games of chance only, not games of skill. (Flippers had not yet been invented.) Hand control of the ball in roll down games was considered in these jurisdictions to show skill on the part of the player. This writer remembers the wooden ball type of games in Los Angeles County in the mid-forties.
Another type of game that is eliminated from the definition of pinball is the Japanese pachinko machines since they do not include the characteristic that the ball "rolls down a slanting surface."
The descriptions of the scoring objectives in the two dictionary definitions are less consistent except that they both refer to "pins." This is interesting since the "pin" has been virtually eliminated from pinball games for many years. The pins, from which the term "pinball" was originally derived (pin and ball game), were brass nails embedded in the playfield to cause the ball to alter its path as it rolled down. The nails were also used to protect the scoring holes, making high scores more difficult to obtain. These nails soon gave way to headless steel pins and later to plastic posts surrounded by rubber rings to provide a rebounding action to the ball. The use of the post has been slowly reduced in the last twenty years and today are used infrequently.
The other scoring objectives mentioned in the two definitions are targets and bumpers and channels. Both definitions, however, leave out the hole which was the only scoring objective in early pingames and, in the form of the kickout hole, is still in use in many modern games.
By combining the scoring objectives mentioned in the two definitions, and adding holes, a comprehensive list of objectives—bumpers, channels (commonly called rollovers), holes, and targets—is obtained. This list covers all the important scoring devices of pinball, both old and new. Future columns will deal with the development of these various pinball scoring devices in more detail.
The last part of the Random House definition "or to shoot a ball into pockets at the back of the board" apparently refers to pinball's early ancestor, the game of Bagatelle. That game, popular in the 19th century was played on a table somewhat resembling a billiard table. The ball was shot with a cue stick from the front of the table toward cupped holes which were near the rear and had individual scoring values.
What about the physical appearance of games which meet the definition of pinball? The first pingames had no legs but were set on a counter in locations such as drugstores. It soon became apparent to operators that some locations required the games to "stand on their own" so stands were provided as an optional accessory for many games during the early thirties. By 1933 or 1934 most pingames had legs bolted to the cabinets and could be set anywhere floor space was available.
The pingames of the early thirties had no backboards until around 1933 when short (two to four inches) backboards began to appear on some games. These early backboards had no lights at first and were merely signs with the game name and/or operating instructions. In 1936 lighted backboards began to appear.
Historical note: What may have been the first pingame with automatically advancing scores displayed by lighted numbers on a backglass (the common method of score indication until around I960) was Rockola's Totalite, first advertised in Billboard magazine in May 1936. This may have also been the first game to employ rollovers as a playfield scoring device.
During 1937 and 1938 the height and utility of the backboards began to increase, until by the end of 1939, the general outward appearance of the pinball machines approximated what it is today.
To summarize, a reasonable general definition of a "pinball machine" is . - -Any amusement device in which a ball, initially propelled by a spring loaded plunger, rolls down a sloping surface encountering various scoring objectives such as bumpers, channels (rollovers), holes, and targets.
The one feature of the true pinball machine that is common to all games from the early thirties to today protrudes from the front of the cabinet— that "ever lovin' " plunger.
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