Saturday, April 6, 2013

Pinball Before Baffle Ball

Today's post is a bit off topic. It's a subject I should probably leave to those better versed in it than I - the prehisotry of pinball. While none of this info is new to pinball historians and can be found on numerous pinball history websites, it's probably less known to video game history fans.

Video game history books usually mention pinball but they seem to always write as if David Gottlieb's Baffle Ball was the first real pinball game. The rather pathetic Wikipedia article on the game states flatly "It was the first pinball machine." It's too bad because pinball has a fascinating history that goes back a long way before Baffle Ball.
I was going to say that this article only scratches the surface, but it really doesn't even do that.

It's taken from one of the appendicies in my book that gives a very brief history of a couple of dozen other types of coin-op amusement devices found in arcades at the time of Pong and prior to it.
The origins of pinball stretch back to over 400 years before the appearance of the first video game. During Elizabethan times lawn bowling (which had been around since at least the 13th century) was extremely popular. A miniaturized indoor version called Nine Pins began appearing in English taverns in the 1500s. By 1600 an outdoor version called Nine Holes had appeared, replacing the pins with nine shallow holes in the ground (eliminating the need to reset the pins after each roll). As with lawn bowling, miniature indoor versions began to appear in which the player used a curved stick to propel the balls down the table to a curved back wall where they dropped into the scoring holes. By 1710 the French had added scoring pockets and wooden pegs to the playfield. Around 1775 the game began being referred to as bagatelle. The game moved to America during the Revolutionary War, American army officer began playing the game with their French comrades. By the mid-1800s, the wooden pegs had been replaced by brass pins.

            Cockamaroo was an English version of Bagatelle with the addition of shooting lanes on the left and right sides of the board and numbered troughs to keep score. An Americanized version of Cockamaroo called Tivoli (aka Peg Pool) became popular in bars and taverns in the 1860s and 1870s. Tivoli and other bagatelle games remained popular until the early 1900s. An 1864 political cartoon showed Abraham Lincoln playing bagatelle against presidential rival George B. McClellan.

In 1871 Montague Redgrave received the first US patent for a bagatelle machine titled Improvements in Bagatelles. Redgrave's machine replaced the cue stick with a plunger and many consider this the first pinball game (though the plunger, or "ball shooter" had been used at least as early as 1700-1750 in a German-made machine). Redgrave and Frederic Wilson formed the company Redgrave and Wilson in Chicago, which made bagatelle games for the home and taverns between 1873 and 1875 before Redgrave moved to Jersey City, NJ and began building machines there. 

Montague Redgraves' origial patent model - from the National Museum of American History


In the late 19th century, parlor versions of the game such as Haydon and Urrry's Bagatelle were popular. Caille Brothers Log Cabin, introduced in 1901, was aggressively marketed and appeared in hundreds of bars and taverns across the country (though it was considered a trade stimulator at the time). Another early pinball predecessor was created by Harry Reed of Salem, MA in the early 1900s. Reed took a folding bagatelle board, added flashing red, white, and blue lights to form a crude backboard, and lugged his contraption to various fairs and carnivals. It would be decades before the next electrified game appeared. 1928's Billiard Skill by A.B.T. Manufacturing was the first game with steel balls and a flat playfield. In 1930 and 1931 a handful of machines were created that could be considered the first modern pinball games.

The Caille Brothers Log Cabin

This 1893 patent by Charles Young is very similar to Log Cabin

In late 1930 Arthur Paulin, a carpenter from Youngstown, Ohio built a modified bagatelle game for his daughter's Christmas present. When she liked it, he took it into town and put in on the counter of Myrl Park's radio shop where Park liked it so much he suggested adding a coin slot. The pair was joined by friend Earl Froom and the three attached a coin slot to the game and put it in a local general store. After an hour they opened to coin box to find $2.60 in nickels. Deciding to bold ten more they formed a company called Automatic Industries and began producing their game, which they called Whiffle. 27,000 Whiffle units had been sold by the end of 1931 and many consider it the forefather of today's pinball industry.

Robert Froom, son of Whiffle inventor Earl Froom, with the original location test model of the game. From Dick Bueschel's stupendous Pinball 1

In the summer of 1929, a Chicago janitor named George Deprez created a version of Redgrave's machine that is another prime candidate for the world’s first pinball game. While the inventor had created the game only for the amusement of his friends, it soon came to the attention of a tenant in one of the buildings where Deprez worked named Nick Burns. Burns operated a shooting gallery and, with his brother, ran the In & Outdoor Games Co He quickly purchased exclusive rights to Deprez's game and began manufacturing it as the Whoopee Game. Jack Sloan, advertising manager for The Billboard saw the game in the Chicago Loop hotel while making his rounds. He suggested adding a coin-slot and pointed the two to Midway Pattern Company to have them manufacture the game. The first handmade unit was put in an arcade in August of 1930.

Another photo from Bueschel's Pinball 1 - this is Pigeon Hole Table, built in 1885 (though the photo is from 1970) - photo originally from Grover Brinkman

One issue with Whiffle and Whoopee was that they cost between $100 and $200 apiece. In addition, they cost a nickel to play - no small amount during the depths of the Depression when every penny counted. In May of 1931 the Hercules Novelty Company released Roll-a-Ball, a game designed by Polish immigrant Charles Chizewer. The game sold for just $16.50 and offered the customer five balls for a penny. 

The game most commonly credited with launching the pinball industry, or even (inaccurately) as the first pinball game came out in 1931. In 1930 the Bingo Novelty Company released Bingo, a bagatelle game created by Nathan Robin. The game was eventually offered to David Gottlieb, who improved the game and released it. While Bingo was a modest success, its true significance was that led to Gottlieb building his own machine which he dubbed Baffle Ball. The game went on to become one of the biggest hits of all time with over 50,000 units sold at $17.50 apiece. While games like Baffle Ball were forerunners to modern pinball, there are many differences between these early machines and the pinball with which most people are familiar. First was the size, Baffle Ball and other bagatelle and pinball games of the time were countertop games - that is, they were small enough to be placed on top of counters (though a stand was available). Secondly, there were no flippers. For a penny, the player shot seven balls onto a playfield which contained several scoring holes surrounded by rings of pins (hence the name). If the ball missed the scoring holes, it fell into a series of lower-scoring bins at the bottom of the playfield.  There were also no bumpers, drop targets, or electricity. All of this meant that early pinball games relied much more on chance than skill. There was also no automatic score-keeping mechanism. Players had to keep their own score in their head or on paper. Nonetheless, Baffle Ball's influence was enormous.

Odds and Ends

While we're on the subject of Pinball, here's an oddball I found in a 1977 Play Meter - a pinball-themed skate park

This one has nothing to do with pinball but here's another un-TAFA's, un-KLOV'd game. Wesco Systems Basketball, from the May, 1979 RePlay (I apologize for the lousy black-and-white photo).



  1. It's good that you wrote this when you did. It's rather a show how misinformed it all is on Wikipedia at all. I learned much about pinball's history thanks to a documentary I saw 16 years ago called "Pleasure Machines: The History of Pinball". In it, they talked about it's roots going back to Nine Holes, Bagatelle and Cockamaroo". They cited Montague Redgrave's "Improvements in Bagatelles" as the first true pinball machine thanks to it's innovations. It was a very interesting watch and did a lot to get me interested in pinball despite having to come out towards the end of the road for several manufacturers that were hanging by a thread (and several years before the "Pinball 2000" debacle).

    The video was first aired on pay-per-view where I had seen it (actually bothered to get my mom to tape it for me while I was in college), though I also saw it aired on AMC a couple times. You can still find it on DVD here.

    1. Thanks. I've seen that video. It used to be on YouTube in five parts (though part 2 had no sound).

      I think the wikipedia article on pinball is a bit better than the one on Baffle Ball. It refers to Baffle Ball as "the first hit of the coin-operated era", which is much more defensible. Of course, it depends on the definition of "hit" and "coin-operated era". I'm guessing that they mean it was the first PINBALL hit, not the first coin-op hit overall (though, if so, some appear to have misread it as applying to all coin-op).
      It also may be that by "coin-operated era" they meant the era starting in the early 30s/late 20s (i.e. the era when Baffle Ball was introduced).

      There were a number of "hit" coin-op games and amusement machines prior to 1931, from mutoscopes and kinetoscopes to shockers to ABT Target Skill etc. Whiffle and Whoopee could also be considered "hits".

    2. People forget about those "penny arcades" very easily.

  2. You should edit those Wikipedia articles--it would be like pinball-themed public service!

  3. Why is there no online information on Harry Reeds Light up bagatelle, or the 1928 billiard skill by A.B.T? Where did you find this information?

    1. You probably won't find much into on proto-pinball games online. The main source of this information was from Dick Bueschel's books Pinball 1 and The Encyclopedia of Pinball, Volume 1 and also his documentary on the history of pinball. Bueschel was probably the foremost historian of early pinball, though he passed away around 1998.

      Harry Reed's game was called Electric Bagatelle and he made very few copies. Bueschel classifies ABT's Billiard Skill as a "proto-pinball" game but it was more of a gun game/trade stimulator. You shot still balls into the pockets of a miniature pool table. I believe they later replaced the gun with a plunger and renamed it Dutch Pool (though they may also have produced a version of Billiard Skill with a plunger). I think it is listed in the Internet Pinball Database as Billiard Practice.

    2. That documentary is worth checking out if you can get it Dario.

      Sad we lost Bueschel so long ago.

      Also, keep up the good worth Keith!