The shot that saved pinball

Pinball is corrupting our children!

Source: Oct 1957 – Better Homes and Gardens.

Pinball history dates back to at least the 15th Century when most games were played outdoors. Pinball descends from games like bowling and bocce ball and early incarnations of games that required the use of sticks to hit balls like shuffleboard and croquet. These games eventually had indoor versions created like bowling. Table versions became popular with a new game called billiards, designed to bring croquet indoors.


From the beginning of pinball in the early 1930s, a recurring problem encountered by the pinball industry was the anti-gambling forces. Because of the preponderance of Slot Machines, trade stimulators and other gambling devices, many people opposed to gambling were suspicious of ALL coin-operated devices. As a result, for many years to come, pinballs had to be defended as being amusement and not gambling devices.
Given the use of pinball as gambling games during the 1930’s it is no wonder that the pinball manufacturers had an uphill climb to convince the authorities that there were people who just wanted to play pinball for fun.

One must realize though that many pinball parlors, bowling alleys and bars were seedy and prone to be habited by low life people, who in addition to gambling were casting bets on the side.

This is a far cry from the innocent image of couple of amusement games in a miniature golf course, at a corner store or at a Penny Arcade in rural America.

Slot machine raids were often conducted as media events. The press was pre-invited so the politicians could get maximum publicity.

Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia of New York had a passion for this, and the largest of all such events occurred on October 13, 1934, when a barge of slots were towed to sea to meet a watery grave. Attorney General Earl Warren began a crime-busting attack in 1939 by serving notice on “off-shore” gambling ships. Raids on these “floating casinos” netted hundreds of machines.

Warning2Taking his cue from this, Pinball machines were officially banned in New York by Mayor LaGuardia on January 21, 1942. He declared them to be a game of luck, and not a game of skill. As a publicity stunt, he smashed up a large number of confiscated games.

Probably though, the biggest single blow to the “gambling industry” in the U.S. came about in 1950 with the passage by Congress of the Johnson Act. That law banned inter-state shipment of “gambling devices” except to states in which the device was legal. This was quite a deterrent to the manufacturers and distributors of such devices to providing them to illegal, or even questionably legal, areas. The Johnson Act also had its effect on “flipper games”. Two characteristics used to define “gambling features” in coin machines, which showed up in many laws, were “a button to cancel free-game credits” and “a meter to indicate the number of free games so canceled.” In 1950 almost all flipper pinballs had these two features, so when the Johnson Act came along pinball manufacturers knew these features had to be eliminated from flipper games lest their shipment be banned by the new “law of the land”.

Published on Pacific Pinball Museum’s site  (click here)


Pinball historian Roger Sharpe proved to the New York City Council that pinball was a game of skill. In 1976, the New York City pinball ban was overturned.

Finally, after more than 80 years of illegitimacy, in the summer of 2014 the City of Oakland has legalized…pinball machines.

Pinball’s design history can help explain why it was illegal for so long. The game used to be a bit more like billiards–you’d shoot the ball onto the play field with a pool stick. In the 1860s, the pool cue turned into a spring-loaded plunger, that you’d pull and release to launch the ball. The game was made small, to fit on top of a counter at a bar or drugstore, and it looked like a simple wooden box, with no electricity, flashy art, or bright colors.

To get the full story and listen to the pod cast (click here)