Seth Porges

Aug 5, 2008

First With a Mechanical “Tilt”

Brokers Tip /// 1933 /// D. Gottlieb & Co.

Early pinball machines, which became immensely popular in a Depression-scourged America looking for cheap entertainment, were built without flippers. Instead of the now-standard paddles, users pulled a plunger to shoot balls onto the playing field, aiming for holes that were worth various point values. Of course, players would try to influence the outcome by shoving the machines themselves, and game operators were less than pleased with the potential for damage. This Wall Street-themed game was the first to feature the now-standard “tilt” mechanism, which punishes players for physically abusing their low-tech gaming console.

The tilt is the brainchild of pinball pioneer Harry Williams, who founded the legendary Williams Manufacturing and designed the first electrical pinball machine. Various types of mechanical tilts have been used over the years, but the first was known as the Stool Pigeon. In it, a small ball stood on a pedestal above a metal ring. When a player pushed the machine too hard, the ball fell off the pedestal and hit the metal ring, activating an electrical circuit that would end the round.

Today, tilt mechanisms are standard in all machines, and mastering gently pushing a machine just hard enough to manipulate the ball without activating the tilt sensor has become an integral part of game play.





First With Flippers

Humpty Dumpty /// 1947 /// D. Gottlieb & Co.

Beginning in the early 1940s, a large anti-pinball movement gained steam across the country, resulting in its banning in a number of locations, including New York City, Los Angeles and Chicago (where most of the machines were manufactured). Much of the opposition to pinball stemmed from the belief that it was a game of chance, and thus a form of gambling. The introduction of the flipper in the late 1940s was important not just as a key component of what people today think of as pinball, but also because it brought a new level of control and skill to pinball. (Although it would be another three decades before most of the pinball bans were lifted).

Humpty Dumpty had six flippers–all facing outward, away from the center of the playing field. It wasn’t until a 1950 game called Spot Bowler that the key hardware for game play took on its now common incarnation at the bottom of the playing field, facing inward.


First Licensed Movie Theme

Wizard /// 1975 /// Bally

Today, Illinois-based Stern Pinball is the only company in the world still making pinball machines, and every single one of its new games is based on a licensed theme (recent games include The Family Guy and NASCAR). But it wasn’t until a movie about pinball was released that a game took its theme from a film.

Wizard was based on the 1975 movie version of The Who’s Tommy rock opera (which was, of course, about that “deaf, dumb and blind kid” who sure played a mean pinball). The game, which featured depictions of Roger Daltry and Ann-Margret on its back glass, proved a hit, and another Tommy-based game came out the following year (Captain Fantastic, which featured Elton John in full pinball-wizard garb). Today’s pinball designers use themes to give their games a narrative and structure, and to bring in a built-in customer base.


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