Pinball: Public Enemy Number One

Although pinball machine precursors have existed since the 1800’s, it was really the 1930’s that saw the introduction of what is thought of historically as a pinball machine. The first pinball machine was known as Baffle Ball and it set atop the table. A wooden plunger sent seven steels balls zooming across the machine and all for the really rather reasonable price of just one copper penny. Amazingly enough, an estimated 50,000 of these Baffle Ball sets were sold in their first year of existence for under twenty bucks a shot. Just one year after the Baffle Ball created what would become a pinball craze, it was joined by a game called Bally-Hoo that sold even better. The next year saw the introduction of the Whirlwind and that outsold them both.

Over the course of the Great Depression, an entertainment medium that only cost a penny to partake of was bound to take off and fly high. The pinball machine over this period underwent a tremendous number of changes. The most important revolution in the history of pinball machines during this era was accomplished by Harry Williams of the Pacific Amusement Company. What exactly was Williams’ great revolution? Introducing the concept of an electric current to what had been a rather static game. What most people who have ever played pinball don’t know is that even the pinball machine filled with electric current to create those crazy sounds and send the ball whizzing from one side of the board to the next still did not have flippers. Yes, the original fun of pinball consisted merely of pulling back the plunger and watching as gravity and electricity did its thing. Soon enough, of course, the pinball machines were equipped with flippers to put the player into the game. Other pinball innovations included the TILT device and, of course, sounds and graphics.

Believe it or not, but pinball became a sign of the decline of western civilization alongside flappers, rock and roll, comic books and legal assembly to protest the criminal policies of Pres. Bush. By the late 1930’s pinball machines were seen as among the most corrupting of all pastimes. It was commonly accepted by decent folk such as teachers and bankers as well as juvenile delinquents were being led down the path of eternal damnation. Things got so ridiculous that during the 1940’s no less a personage than the very popular Mayor of New York City, subject of a hugely successful Broadway musical, Fiorello La Guardia, actually declared war against the influence of pinball machines.

There was the idea that people were becoming addicted to playing pinball. Of course, people were addicted to a lot of other things in the 1940’s and Mayor La Guardia didn’t seem to notice or care. But pinball machines had to go. La Guardia actually singled out pinball machines as a menace to society and so raids upon establishments became the norm. Eventually La Guardia would make it illegal to own a pinball machine inside New York City. It never fails to amuse when looking into history how certain things are plucked from society to receive the bulk of blame for what is wrong with America. It was pinball machines in the 40’s, progressives in Hollywood in the 1950’s, rock music in the 1960’s. The pinball machine of today has been by turns rap music, video games, and TV. Never mind that the single greatest threat to the American way of life was the man occupying the Oval Office for the first eight years of the 21st century. What will the pinball machine of the future be? Hard to say. It will be fun to watch the conservatives fall over themselves finding a new boogeyman from which to shift the blame from their own policies, however.