History of pinball

The first coin operated pinball machine was invited in 1931, yet gaming industry really began in the mid 1930’s with the production of a game called “Ballyhoo.”  It was invented by Raymond Maloney, who later started Bally pinball.  It is thought the term pinball came into play at this time likely due to the fact that the machines of this era had many holes and pins in them.

The popularity of the pinball machine rose dramatically during the mid to late 1930s in part due to the Great Depression and the need for low cost entertainment for the masses.  Since many pinball operators in 1930s gave away prizes based on high scores, some players tried to cheat by shaking and lifting the game, so in 1935, the “tilt” mechanism was thought up by Harry Williams, founder of the famous Williams pinball company.   

Former New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia believed pinball was mafia-organized.  Just weeks after Pearl Harbor was attacked, the Mayor issued an ultimatum to the city’s police force stating that their ‘top priority’ would be to round up pinball machines and arrest their owners.  La Guardia proceeded to spearhead a massive Prohibition style raids in which thousands of machines were rounded up in a matter of days, before being dramatically smashed with sledgehammers by the mayor and police commissioner.  After the butchery, the machines were then dumped into the city’s rivers.

Pictured is La Guardia himself knocking over a 1936 Bally “Bumper” pinball machine, much like the game Sparks houses in its collection of antique pinball machines.  According to what La Guardia wrote in a Supreme Court affidavit, the machines robbed the “pockets of schoolchildren in the form of nickels and dimes given them as lunch money.” 

In 1976, the New York City pinball ban was overturned when the City Council allowed a hearing to reexamine the longstanding ban.  The pinball industry’s strategy; prove that pinball was a game of skill, not chance.  To do this, they decided to call in the best player they could find in order to demonstrate his skill, a 26 year old named Roger Sharpe.  Fearful that this hearing might be their only shot at overturning the ban, the industry brought in two machines, one to serve as a backup in case any problems arose. 

Concerned that they had rigged the primary machine, one councilman told them that he wanted them to use the backup machine.  This presented an enormous problem, while Sharpe was familiar with the first machine, he had never played the backup.  As he played the game, surrounded by a huddle of reporters, cameras and councilman, he did little to impress City Council’s anti-pinball coalition.  Sharpe then did one last move, he pulled back the plunger to launch a new ball, pointed at the middle lane at the top of the playfield, and confidently stated that based on skill, he would get the ball to land through the middle lane.  He let go of the plunger and it did exactly what he said.  Almost on the spot, the City Council voted to overturn the ban.  Sharpe would later work as a licensing consultant for Williams pinball.