Pinball Machines: Dawn of The Modern Flipper Part 1

Posted by Scott 27 APRIL 2015

There was a time when pinball was purely a game of chance. In design, the first pin games worked around the concept of getting the ball into certain holes for big points. Rounds of play went by extremely fast since the player could only stand and watch as the ball bumped and rolled its way down into various holes. The player had no control over these primitive forms of pinball other than the lucky nudge or the “magic touch” used when releasing a ball onto the playfield. Pinball machines were about to take a huge change of direction..

Enter Humpty Dumpty by D. Gottlieb & Co. in 1947, and pinball was never the same again. Humpty Dumpty was the first game with electromechanical (EM) flippers. It was revolutionary in giving more control to the player. No longer was the game of pinball about getting in the right hole out of sheer luck; now, it was a game of skill where the player racked up more points the longer he kept the ball in play.

No other table had ever done that before. Sure, there were flippers before Humpty Dumpty. Various baseball pins used a flipper as the “bat” to launch the ball into play, and Genco’s Double-Shuffle released in 1932 had eight mechanical flippers that the player had to manually turn with handles. Yet none of these games were about giving the player true control—the flippers were simply another gimmick for getting the ball into a higher-scoring hole.

Humpty Dumpty changed the rules of the game entirely, and just in time too. With World War II over, manufacturers began focusing on more “pastime” endeavours again. The first golden age of pinball (1948-1958) was about to begin, and in large part, it was due to what was perhaps the most defining piece of the modern pinball table—the EM flipper. Humpty Dumpty’s designer, Harry Mabs, was the first to implement these flippers into a table, and just one month after the table’s release, the EM flipper was being hailed as “the greatest improvement in the history of pin games.” 

Pinball didn’t change overnight, of course. Humpty Dumpty had six EM flippers on the playing field, and they were faced outward along the borders of the table—a design that feels awkward and strange to the modern pinball player. Only a year later, however, Genco’s Triple Action placed two EM flippers at bottom center of the table (where they have remained ever since), but even those still faced outward. It wasn’t until Gottlieb’s Spot Bowler in 1950 that the modern flipper design emerged.

EM flippers still had some evolving to do for decades to come, but 1947 was the dawn of a new era in pinball. It would put an end to the debate over whether pinball was just another form of illegal gambling. It would open new doors to table innovation and design like never before. Companies like Gottlieb and Genco inspired the design of thousands of pinball tables to come, and the passion of millions of pinball players worldwide was captured by the pin game, which was no longer simply a game of chance but had become one of true skill and control.

Read Part 2 

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