During the 1930s, there were literally hundreds of companies making pinball machines. After World War II, though, there was only a handful. The key players were Gottlieb—the biggest, and pretty much the Cadillac of pinball—and Williams, which was substantially smaller but still an up-and-coming game company. They were the two prime manufacturers. There were smaller players like Chicago Coin, Keeney, and United that made pinball. But really, it was Gottlieb and Williams. Even Bally only made a handful of pinball machines during the 1950s. They made mostly bingos. They looked like pinball machines, but they were really gambling devices. They didn’t have flippers.


The artwork on pinball machines, especially in the ’50s, was fairly racy because the players they were attracting were mostly male bar patrons, ages 20 to 50. There were always lightly clad, well-endowed women on the back glass. The general thought is that Gottlieb had the best artwork. There are some people who collect the machines just because they like the artwork. For them, Gottlieb is pretty much the king.

In the 1960s, Williams started making more machines, and Bally started to get into the market more aggressively. As the bingo machines became clearly illegal, Bally shifted its production over to pinball, and by the mid-1960s, it was starting to make a lot more pinball machines. So now the big three players were Gottlieb, Williams, and Bally, with Chicago Coin as a runner-up. United was bought out by Williams, and Keeney was out of business.

By the 1970s, Gottlieb was still the leader because of its artwork, game play, and quality. Williams was second. But Bally began pushing the envelope as far as artwork was concerned. The company hired a new artist named Dave Christensen, a guy who had been doing slot-machine art in the Bally slot-machine department. They shifted him over to pinball and he really brought Bally pinball machines to the forefront because of his racy artwork, which was much more realistic than the cartoony art that Williams and Gottlieb were creating. The women Christensen drew looked almost real, maybe a bit super-human.

For a while, Bally was up-and-coming, but as soon as the crossover to solid state happened, when companies dumped electromechanical technology for microprocessors, Bally and Williams really took over. Gottlieb fell behind because the operators didn’t view their system as being reliable. Gottlieb’s approach to game design also lagged, but the company eventually went out of business in 1995 because they could never get past the reliability issue.

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