Pinball enthusiasts from around the world are set to flock to this year’s Pinball Expo for a special celebration. Currently slated to take place October 27th through October 30th, at the Schaumburg Illinois Convention Center, this year’s event coincides with two significant milestones in the game’s history. Not only does 2021 mark the 150th anniversary of the game, but also the 45th anniversary of New York City and Chicago lifting long-standing legal prohibitions against pinball.
“The anniversaries of these two significant dates in pinball history is very exciting,” said Rob Berk, Pinball Expo’s founder. “It will give showgoers an opportunity to reflect on the long history of the game, from its very start through some of the tough times and triumphs.”
As Berk is quick to point out, Montague Redgrave, was a British immigrant to New Jersey. It was there that he started to build bagatelle tables based on the French parlor game. Redgrave made changes in his design with the end result resembling a pool-like game that used an instrument similar to a cue stick. The player would aim a ball up a side channel of a slanted table which would then make its way back down through a series of posts and holes to score points. So popular was the game that a Parlor Bagatelle, a much smaller home version for children and adults was introduced.
However, Redgrave’s 1871 patent, No. 115357, included the innovation of a spring-loaded plunger to propel the ball up the side channel to the inclined playfield. As with today’s modern pinball machines, the spring-loaded plunger allowed players to easily adjust the speed and force with which the ball traveled to the playfield and eliminated the need for a cue stick.
The rest, as they say, is history. With the success of Montague’s home version – called a “parlor game,” the concept was eventually adapted for public spaces with electronics, automated score keeping, flippers, drop targets, and a host of innovations following over the last century and a half.
“I suspect we’re going to see a great deal of discussion about the evolution of pinball,” Berk said. “As a general rule the game has been very quick to adapt to technological innovations, such as the addition of computer chips for lighting and sound. It’s difficult to believe today, but the old games had actual bells in the cabinet that a striker would hit when a point was scored. And there were literally dozens of electro-mechanical switches to keep score and turn on lights.”
The second anniversary marked by 2021 is the legalization of pinball in New York City and Chicago. For decades the game was seen as a gambling device with ties to the underworld and sometimes featured lurid scenes on the backglass. The effect was that many communities and city governments moved to outlaw the machines.
In New York City, the fight was led by the beloved Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, who was famously photographed destroying a number of machines in the 1940s. The so-called “nickel-stealers” were blamed for leading to gambling, juvenile delinquency, and all manner of social ills. They were proclaimed to be urban evils that stole the lunch money from the pockets of innocent school children.
That is not to say pinball vanished from New York City. Demand to play the games remained high, and players searched out the illegal devices in all manner of less than reputable establishments or traveled across the Hudson River to New Jersey. Roger Sharpe, one of those dedicated players, led the campaign to legalize pinball in Gotham. Taking on City Hall, he provided testimony and a demonstration of pinball as a game of skill until the City Council was finally convinced.
“What we had in New York City was an outdated law applied to updated equipment,” Sharpe explained. “The addition of flippers and other innovations not only improved game play but also placed pinball squarely in the realm of a skill game.”
And too, the demand for pinball, both as a home and out of home entertainment attraction is as strong today as in the past. As Sharpe explained, there are more pinball manufacturers around the world currently turning out machines than at any time in the last three decades. These include such well-known names as Stern Pinball as well as Jersey Jack, Chicago Gaming, American Pinball and international entries including Pinball Brothers (U.K.); Haggis (Australia); Dutch Pinball (Netherlands) Pinball Adventures (Canada).
“The success of pinball today can be credited with the quality of the games. The pinball companies in operation today are making really first rate games,” said Berk. “These games are as good as any time in history, and I’m proud to say, most of the manufacturers will be at this year’s Pinball Expo.”
The longest running event of its kind in the world, Pinball Expo celebrates its 37th anniversary this coming October 27th through October 30th. Set to take place at the Schaumburg Illinois Convention Center, this year’s show will feature some 60,000 square feet of exhibit space and nearly 100 booths featuring a wide range of pinball machines from the past and present as well as classic arcade games and favorite hand held video games.