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Taking the Plunge: Two Pivotal Games that Set the Course of Pinball’s History  

Is pinball a game of skill or a game of chance? Most people today would argue it’s a game of skill. The player chooses when to hit the ball with their flippers and some can even aim with deadeye precision at the glitzy little light-up targets that make these games so iconic. But what if we stripped that all away? No lights, no million-point multipliers, and most importantly, no flippers. Is still a game of skill when all you’re armed with is a spring-loaded plunger and the power of gravity? Two crucial games of pinball, one nearly 40 years ago, and the other almost another 40 years before that, tried to answer that question with two very different results.

If you were to ask the man who introduced that spring-loaded plunger to pinball, or bagatelle as it was then known, he would argue it was certainly a game of skill and his improvements were the reason for it. Montague Redgrave filed Patent No. 115,357 in 1871, titled “Improvements in Bagatelles,” and it added four enhancements “by which an amusing game of skill is obtained.” One such improvement was to replace the previously used method of propulsion from a pool cue to the spring-loaded plunger. Redgrave claimed that innovation much improved the “mathematical science” of the game by allowing the player to better measure and calculate the force given.

Between Redgrave’s innovations and our first fateful pinball game in 1935, the game grew in detail and effects but largely stayed the same in its essential details. Electricity had found its way into the board’s mechanics, but bumpers and illuminated scoreboards were still a few years off, making their way into machines in 1936 and 1938 respectively. (Bumper, the first game to utilize bumpers can be seen in The Strong’s Pinball Playfield exhibit.) And while it had no impact on skill, there was one especially noteworthy major technological and cultural shift that framed this skill-based debate. In September 1933, Bally Manufacturing released Rocket, the first automatic payout pinball machine. And why not? It seemed as good a time as ever to cash in on the booming business of these machines, with an all-time high of approximately 100 different machines reaching the markets between 1935 and 1936.

As early as 1892, pinball was decried as being “one of the most seductive and the most deceptive in the outfit of the peripatetic gambler.” And as much as I love pinball, it’s tough to deny the slippery slant of these machines (literally and figuratively), as they found their way into general stores and candy shops, charging only pennies for an exhilarating shot at a bigger payout. Between that foreboding quote and our first major game was Prohibition, and an era of glamorous gangsters that brought crime unabated and a subsequent backlash against any corrupters. So, in 1935 in New York City, Jacob Mirowsky, the owner of a candy and stationary store, was charged with maintaining a gambling room for the simple fact of having one of these machines on the premises.

The defense had called three young men “known to their friends as successful shooters of the little balls in the pin game” to prove this was truly a game of skill, and thus could not be a chance-based gambling device. But they were unable to shoot the ball where the justices requested, and their scores were hardly better than a detective “who played as an amateur,” and Mirowsky was found guilty.

Photograph, The Strong, Rochester, New York. And while this gaming session wasn’t the biggest battle in the war of chance versus skill, here was an answer solidified in the theoretically unbiased and philosophically unequivocal arena of the law. One justice did bemoan this back-and-forth debate with the closing remark, “It’s too bad the executive and police departments can’t get together and decide the status of these machines.” And they did, but it took several years, and in 1942 pinball machines were banned in New York City.

Other cities and states passed similar legislation that relegated pinball as an immoral invader. This reputation wasn’t helped by the fact that gambling skulked along in the background with such workarounds as giving free games instead of money. But other more benign innovations helped shape this game into what it is today. Bumpers and scoreboards came a few years after that 1935 game, and flippers would come in 1947 with Humpty Dumpty (on view in The Strong’s Pinball Playfield exhibit). In 1955, Super Jumbo added the ability for four players to take part in a part in a game. All these innovations worked to add more amusement to an already amusing game.

And in May 1976, a man named Roger Sharpe made another case for this game of skill. Again, in the arena of New York City, but now before the entire City Council, Sharpe played the pinball machine Bank Shot. He narrated his strategy as he played, showing the flippers did indeed allow for articulate control of the ball. But the shot that won the game? Sharpe chose a lane at the top of the machine and, using only the plunger, launched that silver ball exactly where he said it would go. And that was that. In one timeless shot, Sharpe brought pinball back to New York City, which would then domino throughout the country, and redeemed Redgrave’s game for “social and family circles,” those unfortunate youths in 1935, and the reputation of a pastime that brought and continues to bring some of the greatest exhilarations you can get from a small silver ball, a spring, and a couple of pins.