Pinball, unlike most arcade attractions, is a game with enough roots to cause foundational damage.
Originating in France around the 18th century, pinball started as a very close relative to games like Billiards or pool. By the 1930s, this modest game was redesigned to become the pinball that we all know, love, and lose countless quarters to today.
Like most absurd, unique fixtures of the twentieth century, pinball has developed an intensely dedicated cult following that has lasted well into the 2020s.
If what I have described to you sounds fascinating or familiar, you may be a budding pinball enthusiast.
In this article, we are going to not only cover the surprisingly interesting history of pinball but also go over the average dimensions, costs, places to purchase machines, and much more. Throw on some Blue Oyster Cult and carry enough quarters to concuss someone as we take a look at every facet of Pinball machines and the craze around them!
The descendant of an 18th-century French game known as Bagatelle, pinball has traveled quite a bit since its inception.
The first time this product was considered its own game and became known as pinball was likely in the early 1930s, though due to it not having bumpers it was seen as a type of gambling and was largely made illegal for several decades. As someone who has lost a good portion of their childhood allowance to arcades, I’m not inclined to fully disagree.
Sometime in the 1940’s the addition of flippers or jet bumpers made pinball feel a bit less luck-based and put more of an emphasis on skill, though the government was unimpressed. Despite a number of alterations that were made with an emphasis on making the product not seen as an alternative to roulette, it remained illegal until the 70s.
This did not stop a number of industrious tinkerers from making improvements to the game. During the fifties at the height of its infamy, companies were still working on improvements towards the machines, clearly spotting potential in the restricted activity.
This continued with small improvements made over the machines across the next couple of decades until it was finally largely legalized in most parts of the country (it is still illegal in some cities in the United States).
The mid 70’s to the early 80s was largely seen as the golden era of Pinball with close to a quarter million units sold in 1979 alone. This breakout success saw its first hurdle in the 80s with the release of several iconic arcade video games seeming to gain more mainstream attention.
While the pinball market saw glimpses of economic resurgences in the early 90s, the popularization of home consoles made it clear that pinball had reached its peak some time ago. By the beginning of the 21st century, most of the prominent pinball manufacturers had moved on to more lucrative machines like slots while the public had moved on to video games and the world wide web.
Today you still have a number of pinball machines in the corners of your favorite bars, antique shops, and arcades but they have massively fizzled from the global fascination they got in the late 70s. Despite this, pinball lovers and businesses still keep several machines in incredible condition and still offer a thriving list of options for any potential collector or enthusiast.
Sadly, it seems the days of pinball (just like the jukebox) being a national craze have been over for nearly half a century now.
What Makes A Pinball Machine?
One thing you will never hear about today’s pinball machines is that they aren’t flashy enough.
With the incredible lights, mechanisms, and different sounds emanating inside the glass display it can be easy to feel overwhelmed with what exactly goes on underneath the hood. To give you a better knowledge of how all the different brightly illuminated parts work with one another, let’s discuss the many different parts of a pinball machine.
Basketball has courts, chess has a board and in the case of pinball – we have a playfield. The inclined playfield is the area where the ball itself moves around. Each playfield is designed with a downwards slope to allow the pinball to work its way around.
The universally approved slant is 6.5 degrees, which is typically seen as the standard. The playfield works as the canvas for the rest of the moving pieces in a pinball machine.
The plunger works a lot like a fixed pool cue (which it was in the early years of pinball), it is a large (typically metal) rod that you pull back on to launch the ball into play. The rod is powered by a spring allowing for a good deal of force to be applied during the initial launch.
Despite the seemingly random nature of the plunger, there does seem to be a good deal of skill behind it. Avid pinball players can become very good at launching the ball into favorable positions by using the plunger well.
One of the easier to discern pieces of a pinball machine, the flippers are the two paddles found at the bottom of the playfield. These can be manipulated by the player via two buttons on either side of the pinball machine.
A skillful player can use these to place the pinball in favorable positions – while most of us flap our flippers helplessly as the ball effortlessly rolls right between the middle. While there are several different ways you can affect the trajectory and direction of the ball, the flipper is your main tool to affect the outcome of a game.
My personal favorite part of the puzzle, the bumpers are typically wooden or metallic circular protrusions that are used to score points and knock the ball into other areas of the playfield.
The original bumpers were known as passive bumpers due to them being nonreactive when being hit. Nowadays these are known as jet bumpers due to their design being made to send the ball away from them with a good deal of velocity.
Most bumpers have an area that surrounds them that notifies the bumper of any activity, almost like a security perimeter. When the bumper is notified of a metallic intruder, it activates and the ball is then ejected to another part of the playfield.
Bumpers are a great tool to keep your ball occupied while raking in a good deal of points, just be mindful that it doesn’t shoot the ball out of play.
Holes work a bit like bumpers in their ability to gather points and also shoot your ball into another part of the playfield. Holes, when activated, reward the player with points and temporarily take control of the ball.
Depending on the machine, the ball will then either be shot back out or taken by the machine. Typically speaking, you will utilize holes in the same way that one would take advantage of bumpers.
One day some pinball enthusiast decided that if you alter the incline of the pinball machine, it typically helps you play better.
To combat this, the leading minds behind pinball worked out the tilt sensor, which can determine whether or not the pinball machine has been tampered with. Despite this, there are still a large number of creative players that have been able to still use this trick without tipping off the sensor.
Vintage pinball machines would do everything short of calling the cops on you when the tilt sensor was alerted. The match was over immediately, the flippers would not respond to your inputs and the bumpers wouldn’t react to the ball triggering them.
Nowadays, the machines are on average more lenient and will even allow a few tilts. This isn’t to say you can cheat the system, if the sensor is alerted enough you will still get locked out of the game and lose those precious quarters.
There is a great deal of individuality when it comes to various pinball machines, in fact, it’s one of the most attractive aspects of the hobby.
The unique qualities of these pinball machines can make it hard to nail down exact averages across the board, though they do exist.
The usual length of a pinball machine sits at around 51”, 28.5” in width, and stands typically 75.5” high at the back of the machine.
To the surprise of no one who has ever tried to move a pinball machine, these chunky customers come in at around 325 pounds, so don’t be afraid to ask for help when moving one.
Frequently Asked Questions
It really depends on what type of machine you have in mind. If you want a preowned, discount machine – you can probably find one for a couple of hundred bucks. If you are looking for a machine that is brand new or higher-end, you could be looking at anywhere from 3,500 to 10,000 dollars depending on the machine you choose. The price of these machines varies wildly, so I will do a rough estimate of different types of pinball machines.
New Machines (Mid-range) – $3,500 to $8,000
Old & Used Machines – $500 – $2,000
High-End Machines – $8,000 – $15,000 (Could be higher, some of these machines get pricey)
You should also bear in mind that the shipping costs of getting a pinball machine to your door will likely be a few hundred dollars as well.
While there are a number of pinball enthusiasts and arcades, there are only two known manufacturers in the United States. These are Jersey Jack and Stern Pinball, both located in Illinois. If you are looking for a newly made machine or want to see all of the upcoming machines being built, these are the two to keep an eye on.
Due to the craze over electronics like video games, smartphones and VR headsets there simply isn’t the same market for pinball machines that there used to be. Due to this, most pinball companies either went out of business or moved on to video game products and gambling machines.
For sure! Before I start listing off the best spots to shop for a pinball machine of your very own – be aware that we get no kickback for listing these sites, stores, and machines (basically, we aren’t biased).
If you are looking for used, budget, or lower-priced machines then you may want to shop around for local craigslist, eBay, and Facebook marketplace options.
You should be very wary of who you purchase a pinball machine from, since they are easily damaged and hard to repair. It may be easier to find a fellow enthusiast at a local machine supplier or arcade if you have one available to you.
You can also look for local Pinball leagues to find like-minded people who can offer more insight at a local level.
The frustrating habit about hobbies is how often they require a fine-toothed comb before you dive into them.
Pinball is sadly no different, there are a number of shoddy machines being sold by dishonest sellers and often times at quite a high price. Patience is king because you will need to do a good bit of research before purchasing a product.
Below is a list of steps to go over to make sure that you are not only getting a working machine, but also one you want.
- If you are buying from a collector, make sure they are trustworthy.
- If you are buying from a distributor, make sure you get a warranty.
- Pinball machines are universally pricey, so get a quality product.
- Check to see if you have the space to fit a machine.
- Test it out before buying it if you can and check for damage and broken parts.
While you can’t always be absolutely certain that you are getting a good product, it is paramount that you do some brief inspections on the machine before spending thousands of dollars on it. As attractive as some of these machines are (the craftsmanship is genuinely beautiful on some models), a visually striking paper weight clogging up your game room isn’t going to entertain anyone.
Despite a small reserve of dedicated pinball lovers trying to bring the hobby into the future, this vintage entertainment system seems likely to remain a time capsule.
Thankfully, there are a number of ways for you to get your hands on pinball machines outside of the handful of retro arcades sprinkled across the country.
So whether you just want a trip down memory lane or you want a five-thousand-dollar arcade machine, both options are at your disposal!