Not Safe For Play? The Evolution of Pinball Machines

Game of skills or evil gambling? It is hard to believe that there was a long period in the history of arcade games when pinball machines, these amazing mixtures of art, design, engineering, technology, gaming, sport, culture, and so on, were banned. It was illegal to own even just one.

The following images draw the brief gravity-defying evolution of pinball machines, from the very beginning of pins and balls, through the first flippers through to spaceships; from mere luck to mastering the ball; from pure mechanical to analogue and digital; from adult themes to blockbuster movies and popular cartoons and animated sitcoms. Travel with us now over more than 140 years of pinball history with the help of the incredible collection of PBal Gallery, a temporarily closed pinball museum in Budapest, Hungary.

This is the third, closing piece of our mini series showcasing awesome pinball machines. (First part: 50 Gorgeous Examples of Pinball Machine Art Across Seven Decades. Second part: Get Lost in the Intricate Details of These Amazing Pinball Machines.)

1871: M. Redgrave’s patented “Parlor Bagatelle Table” (USA). Montague Redgrave’s first production game with a spring loaded plunger was the first ancestor of all pinball machines.


1932: Ballyhoo, an early pinball machine, the game that started Bally (USA).

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1933: Silver Cup (by Genco, USA), a more complex pinball machine with metal cup castings on playfield and a display for the automatic score totalizers

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1934: World’s Fair Jig-Saw pinball (by Rockola, USA). The player had ten balls to try to complete a jigsaw puzzle picture of the 1934 Chicago World’s Fair.

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1939: Airport (by Genco, USA). One of the first electro-mechanical pinball machines, without flippers.

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1939: Favorit (by Bergmann, Germany). A flipperless electro-mechanical pinball predecessor with passive bumpers.

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1947: Humpty Dumpty (by Gottlieb, USA). The first pinball machine manufactured with electro-mechanical flippers.

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1948: Triple Action (by Genco, USA). The first pinball machine with two flippers placed at the bottom of the playfield.

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1949: Basketball (by Gottlieb, USA). Light animation in the backbox.

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1951: Hayburners (by Williams, USA). With mechanical backbox animation.

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1951: Jalopy (by Williams, USA). Basically the same machine as above but with car racing theme. Note that the flippers move invertedly compared to later flippers.

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C1950: Wild Animals bagatelle game (manufacturer unknown).

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1959: Tic-Tac-Toe (by Williams, USA). With backglass animation of Tic-tac-toe board.

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1960: Roller Derby playfield (by Bally, USA). Electro-mechanical pinball machine, specialty: Bingo Machine.

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1962: Target Gallery (by Midway, USA). With one baseball bat instead of flippers.

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1965: Buckaroo (by Gottlieb, USA). Played by Elton John in the classic rock opera Tommy.

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1967: Benelux-tour bagatelle (by Homas Spelen, Netherlands). Contains two spring loaded plungers and a single-row abacus.

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1968: Hayburners II (by Williams, USA). The first modern flippers (3 inches in place of 2 inches) are introduced.

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1971: Hi-score Pool (by Chicago Coin, USA). Wide pin with smaller balls and a special turret shooter at the middle bottom.

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1972: Winner (by Williams, USA). Animated horse race under the playfield.

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1975: Super Flipper (by Chicago Coin, USA). First video game disguised as a pinball machine. CRT TV screen in a pinball cabinet.

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1978: Hearts, Spades (by Allied, USA). A cocktail table with pinball inside.

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1978: Future World playfield (by Zaccaria, Italy). Outer space themed pinball machine.

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1979: Gorgar (by Williams, USA). The first talking pinball machine (vocabulary: 7 words). Gorgar also had a heart beat sound that sped up during the game play.

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1979: Xenon (by Bally, USA). Bally’s first talking pinball machine.

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1980: Firepower (by Williams, USA). The first solid state electronic pinball machine with multiball mode.

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1980: Black Knight (by Williams, USA). This was the first solid state electronic pinball with a multi-level playfield.

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1980: Sexy Girl (by Bell Games, Italy). “NSFW“ pinball machine with projector and film cartridge installed under the playfield, showing images intended for adults only.

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1981: Hyperball (by Bally, USA). No flippers, but a hypercannon shoots up to 250 small balls per minute at targets.

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1982: Orbitor 1 (by Stern, USA). One of the craziest pinball machines ever created: it has a clear curved plastic playfield with a cratered Moon surface, imitating gravitational slingshot movements. Only 889 were built.

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1984: Granny and the Gators (by Bally, USA). A combination of a scaled-down pinball machine and a video game.

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1985: Pinball Action (by Tehkan, USA). Pinball video game in a pinball machine style cabinet.

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1986: Pin*bot (by Williams, USA). With a bagatelle-like mini playfield upper level.

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1988: Banzai Run (by Williams, USA). A magnet lifts the ball in play to the vertical playfield in the backbox.

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1989: Earthshaker (by Williams, USA). Equipped with a shaker motor for vibrating quake effects.

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1990: Diner (by Williams, USA). Mechanical backbox animations are back!

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1997: Cirqus Voltaire (by Williams, USA). The only Williams pinball wtih its digital matrix display (DMD) screen built in the playfield, not in the backbox.

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1992: The Addams Family (by Midway, USA). Broke all previous sales records, 20,270 were sold.

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1993: Pistol Poker (by Alvin G., USA). One of the rarest pinball machine, only 200 were built. Combining pinball and poker with the backglass light matrix.

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1993: Twilight Zone (by Midway, USA). Features a smaller and lighter ceramic ball called the “Powerball”.

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1999: Star Wars Episode I (by Williams, USA). The last pinball machine manufactured by Williams.

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2003: The Simpsons Pinball Party (by Stern, USA). Bumper caps in the shape of cooling towers. Homer’s head moves on playfield, with lamp inside.

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2006: Family Guy (by Stern, USA). It has a mini playfield with tiny balls and flippers.

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2012: Star Trek, Enterprise Limited Edition (by Stern, USA). Features the USS Vengeance starship with rocking and shaking and crash effect.

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Photos: Attila Nagy/Gizmodo

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