Recently, Rarity Guide went to the Pacific Pinball Expo in San Rafael. There we got to see some very rare pieces from Pinball history, including a few one-of-a-kind machines. With over 350 machines on the floor, many from the Pinball Museum and some from local collectors, there was a lot to see and play.

There were also many machines of note to be found on the floor as well. While not a single machine, the Expo featured many of the Gottlieb machines. Most of them were from Gordon Hasse’s collection, which featured all of the Gottlieb machines produced. A few machines of note would be Gottlieb's “Humpty Dumpty”, which was the first Pinball game to feature flippers, and Atari's “Hercules” which was the largest Pinball game ever made. Many of these machines spent a good bit of time in private collections but emerge for this event because the owners feel they should hold true to their heritage, that they should be played and know love from the public. Another machine of note from the early days was the World’s Fair Jigsaw Puzzle from the 1930’s. It was a very popular one, with several thousand made. There were a few machines of note from the later times as well, with Robotron, the Addams Family, Star Trek: The Next Generation, Captain Fantastic, Funhouse and many others.

This Expo in particular focused on the history of Pinball from its early origins to its modern incarnations. We met with Greg Maletic, a Pacific Pinball Museum board member and the director of the documentary Tilt: The Battle to Save Pinball. He was kind enough to take us on a tour of the Expo and tell us about the history of Pinball. This covered the early days, the Wood Rails (40’s -50’s), Wedge heads (late 50’s, early 60’s), the Rise and Fall of Gottlieb, up to the modern day. This also included some machines of interesting note: “Eight Ball” where the producer was sued and lost because of Likeness rights to the Fronz, “Gargor” which was the first talking machine, “Hercules” which remains the world's largest pinball machine, “Medieval Madness” which holds much sentimental value for many people and a few others.

The exact beginnings of the game are harder to trace, but Pinball grew out of an 18th century game, Bagatelle, which originated in France around 1777. In the early 1920’s and 1930’s saw in the innovation of Pinball in an early form of what we know it as today, yet it was to be decades yet before the next innovations brought Pinball to what we know today. At first Pinball was a gambling game in the 20’s and 30’s, dispensing little prizes or balls that a customer could take to the proprietor and exchange for money. This lead to Pinball being banned in numerous states to discourage gambling. Still, the industry preserved, changing from a “game of chance” to a “game of skill”. Around this time, Gottlieb entered into the field with Baffle Ball. With a cost of $17.50 to obtain a machine and a penny to play, it became an overnight success, with many establishments making back the cost in just a few days. These early games were made to fit on bar or tabletops, making cheating a little easier to do, but this eventually lead to the invention of the Tilt Mechanism by Henry Williams, which remains today, to help prevent this. Over time, naturally the machines became bigger and eventually grew legs, the shape we all know emerge around the 1930’s. Also, in this era, there were no scoring mechanism, you would finish your game, then have to manually tabulate your score from where the balls landed. Once electricity could be incorporated, then we saw much more of Pinball as we know it, still lacking flippers, but there were at least some crude methods of keeping score. It was not until 1947 that players finally gained flippers in Gobttlieb’s “Humpty Dumpty”. It was not long after this that flippers became the standard in the game. The 1960’s are a time of note for two reasons: 1) The redesign of the Display into the “Wedgehead” shape 2) The Wooden Rails of old are now replaced with Steel. The 1960’s also witnessed another phenomenon, the prolific production from designer Wayne Neyens. Wayne Neyens in this time turned out numerous different models in a very short period of time. When the norm was 6-7 complete new models a year, this man outstripped them all by a fair margin.

The 1960’s and 1970’s brought Pinball farther away from its gambling roots as Pop Culture was beginning to see the influences of Science Fiction on it. This was also a time of upheaval, as the late 1970’s brought about Solid State technology which offered more possibilities than ever before. This was the time when Williams managed to supplant Gottlieb as the leading Pinball game producer. Solid State allowed for more control over the rules of the game, as it could now have programming. This also vastly improved the multiplayer abilities of the game, allowing for the basics of a save file for each player in the multi-game, tracking the individual targets struck opposed to the complete resets each round. This also improved things in terms of sound and music. While crude at first (Ex. Gorgar, the first talking game with its 7 word vocabulary, or the horrible version of “I Want to Rock and Roll All Night” in the KISS Pinball game), this improved over time with technology where it is of fair quality. The next innovation that followed later in those times was the beginning of dot matrix animations in the display and a digital scoreboard. The 1980’s saw Williams pull ahead of Gottlieb, with “Firepower”, and later the immensely popular “Addams Family” Pinball game. The change of the millennium saw another switch in power as Stern took over and remains the only Pinball producing company at present. Stern is more unique as they produce licensed games exclusively, which is very different from any other company in the past.

Gottlieb dominated the Pinball field for decades, starting in 1931 with Baffle Ball, and held onto the head of the industry until the adoption of the Solid State field, where they finally faltered in the 1980’s as they were the last ones to use it. One of the big machines of Gottlieb that was featured at the show was “Mermaid”. This is a particularly rare machine as it was an early machine to feature any sort of motion box in the display. Still, the biggest one, though quite discreet, was “Humpty Dumpty” as it was the first one truly to be considered a “modern pinball game”. As mentioned earlier, it was the first to have flippers and a score display but it was still quite different from what a modern-day pinball player would know. Instead of the standard pair “Humpty Dumpty” featured 3 pairs in order to ensure the player would pitch the ball all the way to the top again. These flippers also faced outwards, not inwards as they do now. These flippers were quite weak and small compared to the modern flipper. While the size did not immediately change, their strength, at least, did.