Playing Pinball, The Original Entertainment Center

Playing pinball has survived the technological revolution to the 21st Century; evolving from a countertop game to the complex computer-driven machine you see in the arcade - see where it all started!

Walking into the local video game center you might see one, tucked in the far back by the exit door. You might even see someone playing it; tackling the machine in a frenzied match, his fingers flying as he curses and yells at the display board and wonders why gravity won't give him a break today. An oddity among the flashing lights of the technological wonders generated by the computer industry, the pinball machine might have dwindled in popularity, but it was and still is the first entertainment center of the twentieth century.

The first pinball machines were created in the early 1900's; small boxes that could be set up anywhere for entertainment. They arrived in the technological wave that also gave us records, radio and the first movies; startling a public that had never seen such advances in their own lifetime, nevermind in just a few years.

Originally you could only find these small portable games in the amusement parks and the carnivals that traveled around the country, but as time went on they became more popular and could be found in bus stations and the local store.

You wouldn't recognize the game as anything resembling the pinball machine of today, though - there were no flippers! The only way to control the flight of the ball through the obstacles was through brute force - shaking and nudging the machine to get the ball to head where you wanted it to. It even awarded prizes back then, although only worth a few cents or maybe a few pennies if you were lucky.

After the First World War the pinball machine grew more common; with the stock market crash creating more of a demand for this game. Although you would think that a Depression wouldn't be good for any business, one thing all people did have was more time on their hands. During this period board games prospered, as did all games of chance that offered small rewards. It was here that the pinball industry expanded and grew as more and more people sought refuge in a quick cheap game.

Chicago became the self-professed "home" of pinball with the advent of coin-operated amusement machines, making pinball more "professional" and available to the public as these machines crept into any nook and cranny where it could fit.

In the thirties Bally created the first "official" pinball game; a wonderful creation called "Ballyhoo". It only cost one cent to play five balls and was an immediate hit with the public. The entire machine only weighed thirty pounds and was snapped up by businesses for their customers.

The industry exploded after that, with the paintings and the features growing as fast as the inventors could add them onto the machine. During the late Thirties electricity was introduced to the game as well as the concept of having them actually stand apart on their own. No longer trapped to a countertop; the pinball machine leapt across the room and occupied any open space, free of yet another restriction.

The addition of electricity literally shocked the industry. Henry Williams created "Contact"; a pinball game which had two small contact holes with solenoid-powered kickers to make the ball jump out. The bell would ring as the ball leapt out; creating the first sound effect. Solenoids are still used in current games to create the visual effects of the ball dancing around the play area or staying in one place; breaking the law of gravity as the player curses and nudges the machine.

It was only after World War Two that flippers were introduced to the game, giving a whole new depth to this family favorite. Suddenly you could affect the travel of the ball without brute force and with the new sounds and bells added it became the most popular game of the next few decades.

As time went on the machine evolved through many stages; from the addition of multiple ball play to multiple play areas to having even more flippers to manipulate and direct the ball through the barricades and traps that constantly beckoned. The backplate behind the game advertising the topic became works of art, collected by fans and treasured by artists as wonderful creations aimed at a public who was quickly drawn in by the scenarios depicted on the glass.

In the Seventies and Eighties, the pinball machine came in direct competition with the video game, losing fans as they wandered off to the bright pictures and scrolling dialogue that signified the new technological revolution. Many pinball producers, including Bally, took the next step and began to incorporate video games inside the pinball machine.

These hybrids included small movies inside the screen, advertising the scenario as the lights got flashier and the sounds computer-generated. Tying these new machines in with current trends and movies made pinball machines able to compete with the newer video games in the local arcade.

And while the newest video shoot-em-up might attract the youngsters, you'll find many people still wandering to the back of the arcade, hoping to find a Super 8-Ball or maybe a newer X-Files pinball machine, just waiting to be played and offering the ultimate challenge - of true chance, not variables programmed into a computer.

Pinball has grown from an obscure countertop machine to the technological hybrid you see today, and is unlikely to disappear totally as long as there are people still willing to try their luck for a quarter - next time, why not give it a try and see what's kept this game alive and well for over a century!

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