The History of Pinball in 10 Funfacts

The story of the pinball machine goes back as far as the 1700s, and it is a story worth telling. By means of 10 funfacts this Catawiki story leads you through the rich and surprising history of the famous pinball machine!

1. Bagatelle is the ancestor of pinball
To understand the history of pinball we need to go back to France, the 1700s. It were the years of the Aristocrats, playing croquet as a social pastime. But they got tired of waiting for the rain to stop, so the French came up with the idea for a game called Bagatelle. This “ancestor” of the pinball machine was nothing more than a board with wooden pins and a ball, but it was such a great success French soldiers brought Bagatalle to America during the American Revolution in the late 18th century.

2. Pinball was officially invented in 1871
It was the inventor Montague Redgrave from Ohio who turned the century old Bagatelle game into the first pinball game. He was granted a US patent for his “Improvements in Bagatelle”, which included a coiled spring, a slope and (smaller) marbles. The “Parlor Table Bagatelle” game got popular in bars, where high scores would earn you pride and maybe a free drink.

3. “The coin” helped pinball become successful
The pinball machine became real popular during the Depression in the 1930s, due to the need for low cost entertainment. The first automatic pinball machine comes from 1931 and it was then coin operated games found their way around the US.

4. Pinball was banned for almost 40 years
But when in the late 1930s the first pinball machines were featured with luminescent fields that kept score, the US government started seeing pinball as gambling. It got even worse when Bally started making machines that actually cashed out when winning. These adjustments were in conflict with the strict gamble laws of the US so pinball machines were banned from the early 1940s until 1976.

5. The first flippers were not introduced until 1947
We can hardly image a pinball machine without flippers, but it was not until 1947 Gottlieb introduced them. Before that, players would have to bump and tilt the machine to make the ball change direction. Although the introduction of flippers actually added skill to the game, taking away a great part of the gamble element, it was already too late: pinball was banned, associated with the mafia and seen as a dangerous distraction to children.

6. A “Babe Ruth Move” ended the ban
Pinball went into hiding for many decades after several Pinball owners were raided by the New York police and many machines where symbolically smashed with sledgehammers. It was not until 1976 the ban ended, when Roger Sharpe testified in court that pinball had become a game of skill instead of a game of chance. He proved this by playing a pinball game in the courtroom, predicting the exact movement of the ball before shooting– afterwards referring to Babe Ruth’s home run in the World Series of 1932. His performance convinced the courtroom that pinball was actually a harmless game of skill.

7. Video games overruled pinball
With the introduction of the microprocessor, electronic gaming was in and pinball was out. But although the video game boom of the 1980s made pinball machines bite the dust, the pinball industry fought back. Creative features and designs made the pinball machine stand out a little more, and many of these features are still present today.

8. The Addams Family sold best
In the 1990s pinball saw a modest comeback with the merge of Bally and Williams, who made some extraordinary machines that still stand out: on Catawiki you regularly find creatively designed pinball machines from the 90s, often selling for thousands of dollars. One of these beauties is bestseller “The Addams Family” with a production rate of over 20.000 machines.

9. Pinball and video games merged
The last attempt to put pinball back on the map was with “The Pinball 2000” machine, which combined video movies with the ancient pinball game. Many other machines started featuring animations, computer games and more.

10. Pinball is now mostly played online
As with almost everything these days, the century-old game of pinball has moved on to digital space. Online it is still a very popular game, but the actual pinball machine has mainly become a collector’s item.

It is not just the rich history of pinball but also the fun element of the game which makes pinball machines a popular vintage item on Catawiki. Besides, they look great. See for yourself on our automats auctions!

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