An Overview of the History of Pinball

Of all arcade games, many would contend that pinball has the most interesting history of all. Through this article, you are provided an overview of some of the more interesting elements of the history of pinball.

Bagatelle is the Fore-parent of Pinball

In order to really understand the history of pinball, you need to go back to the 1700s in France. During this time period, the royals and aristocrats of France enjoyed playing croquet as a major social pastime. The problem was weather did not always cooperate.

The French came up with a game called Bagatelle. This game essentially was a board with wooden pins and a ball. The objective was to use the pins to maneuver the ball into a hole. At about the time of American Revolution, this game migrated to the New World.

The Official Launch of Pinball was in 1871

Technically speaking, pinball was invented in 1871 by Montague Redgrave of Ohio. He is responsible for turning what by that time was the century old Bagatelle game into the initial pinball game.

The man was awarded what was described as a patent for his “improvements in bagatelle.” His improvements included a coiled spring, a slope, and smaller marble-sized. The so-called “Parlor Table Bagatelle” game became popular in pubs and taverns. People with high scores would be given a free libation.

Coin Operated Pinball Machines

At the time of the Great Depression, coin operated pinball machines became “a thing.” The coin operated pinball machine became a form of cheap entertainment that nearly everyone could afford. Coin operated pinball machines could be found across the United States.

Pinball Prohibition

For a period of almost 40 years, pinball was banned nearly everywhere in the United States. The pinball ban or prohibition in New York is a prime example of what happened in the country from the mid-1940s until the 1970s.

In the 1940s, some pinball machines started paying off winners. For this, and other reasons, pinball became considered by many governmental officials to be a game of chance. This remained the position of governmental and law enforcement officials even though it was during this time period that flippers were added to the game, which added an element of skill to play.

The Importance of Flippers

Before the advent of flippers on pinball machines, there was not set way in which a player could use skill to maneuver a ball. The best a player could do would be to tilt of move the entire game in order to manipulate the movement of the ball.

It was also after the introduction of the flipper that some cities, like the Big Apple, became more intent on enforcing the pinball prohibition. They argued that pinball was dangerous to children.

The Babe Ruth Move Ends Pinball Prohibition

Once the pinball prohibition went into effect, pinball machines and their owners went into hiding. The ban in some cities proved to be aggressively enforced. For example, in New York City, the police smashed pinball machines with sledgehammers.

The New York City pinball ban occurred in a courtroom during the testimony of many named when Roger Sharpe in 1976. He maintained that pinball was not a game of chance, but rather of skill.

As Babe Ruth did in the 1932 World Series, Sharpe predicted the exact course of the ball — this time a pinball machine. His performance convinced the court that pinball was a harmless game of skill.

Video Games Trump Pinball

During the 1980s, video games nearly did in pinball machines all together. Ultimately, pinball manufacturers fought back and created machines that mimicked some of the features found in video games.


Addams Family: Most Popular Pinball Game in History

The 1990s brought about a bit of a come in regard to pinball. This was due in part to the merger of two of the leading manufacturers in the industry: Bally and Williams.

Ultimately, the Addams Family pinball machine became the most popular. It had a production rate of over 20,000 machines.

Pinball Today

In this day and age, pinball is most often played online. The storied game of pinball has now ended up primarily in cyberspace.

With that said, classic pinball machines have become something of collector’s items. There is an important caveat to this idea of pinball machines as collector’s items. Yes, they are collected. But, when collected they typically are not just displayed, but usually played as well. This includes vintage machines that are part of collections as pinball museums the world over.


Jessica Kane is a writer for The Pinball Company, the best online source for new, used, and refurbished pinball machines, arcade cabinets, and more!

Written by
Jeremy Kaplan

A 50-something year old lifestyle, career, and education blogger based in Atlanta, Georgia. Years of experience in the office setting working with others and still loving it year-after-year.

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