CONTACT! - PINBALL GOES ELECTRIC!
by Russ Jensen
This is the second in my series of articles describing the pingames in my personal collection, in chronological order. Last time I described the pioneer pingame, BALLYHOO, which was the beginning of the great Rally organization, and even responsible for its corporate name. This time I will describe Pacific Amusement's watershed game, CONTACT, invented by the great Harry Williams, and the first pingame to employ electricity to give action to the game.
The time was the latter part of 1933. The pinball industry, for all practical purposes, was little more than two years old. But in that short span, pin games had developed from simple counter‑top boxes with holes on playfields that were studded with nails to some rather complex "mechanical marvels" like Rockola's WORLD SERIES and WORLD'S FAIR JIGSAW.
In California, at the time, young pin game designer, Harry Williams, (soon to become one of the greatest names in the industry) was beginning to feel a "financial pinch". The income from his efforts in the pingame field was beginning to fall off and he needed a new idea to enable him to survive in the business he knew and loved. He knew what he needed‑‑but the ideas just didn't seem to come. Then. one day, during a period of silent meditation, he got an inspiration, which, though he was unaware Of it at the time, was to become the first major milestone in pin game development.
He immediately got out the large green pad of paper which he used to sketch all his designs. And, in what seemed like only minutes, had sketched the design for his new game. A game using electricity to provide "Playfield Action" through the use of small electromagnets capable of "kicking' a ball out of one hole and into another. He decided to call his new inspiration CONTACT because it used an electrical "contact" (switch) to initiate the action. Harry's invention was soon to become the very first pin game to use electric power from dry cell batteries to provide "action" that intrigued and amused the player. (NOTE: At about this same time, Bally introduced a game called ROCKET which also used battery power but only to operate a "coin payout" mechanism. This innovation began the era of electric, automatic payout pins.)
At this point, Harry was faced with two problems. Finding the electromagnets he needed to implement his design, and finding someone to help him manufacture and market it. As luck would have it, Harry's shop was located on Pico Boulevard in Los Angeles‑‑an area of small manufacturers as well as coin machine jobbers (Pico is still the center of the coin machine activities in L.A.). He soon discovered, much to his delight that right next door to him was a small manufacturer of (you guessed it!) electromagnets known as "solenoids". Harry bought the parts he needed and set to work to build a prototype of his new brainchild. The next step was to find someone to help him produce and market it.
Harry had heard of a small carburetor manufacturer named Fred McClellan who had ventured into the pin game field. Fred had apparently decided there was money to be made in games and awhile back had formed what he called Pacific Amusement Manufacturing Co. Despite the firm's name, Fred did not actually manufacture his own games at that time. He had them made by a "cabinet shop", instead, put his name on them and sold them to coin machine operators. At the time Harry invented CONTACT, Fred was successfully marketing two games: MASTERPIECE and METROPOLITAN.
Fred McClellan was the man Harry chose to see his new game. And when Fred saw the "action" on CONTACT's playfield he realized at once that this was what pin game players had been waiting for‑‑thrilling action to a pin game. A deal was stuck. Fred was to market CONTACT. But what about manufacture? After some discussion, Harry convinced Fred that he should set up his own manufacturing facility rather than use the "cabinet shop" to produce CONTACT, and a bold venture was initiated. So began the era of electric action pin games which has continued to this very day.
The introduction of electric playfield action was not CONTACT"s only claim to fame. Not long after CONTACT was put on the market, a practical joke was played on Fred McClellan that had far‑reaching consequences. Fred's office was located behind his showroom which was always filled with potential customers trying out his games. Business was good and Fred was constantly being interrupted by phone calls. Someone saw in this situation the opportunity for a joke and connected an electric door bell to the solenoid circuit on one of the CONTACT games in the showroom. Then every time the solenoid was energized as the game was being played, the bell would ring. And Fred, thinking it was his phone, would try to answer it. But no one was ever there.
One of the operators in the showroom at the time thought the bell would be a good attention getting device if used on the game for real to help ar~ct players. He tried operating a CONTACT equipped with a bell next to one without it and the bell equipped game was the hands down winner as far as "take" was concerned. After that bells became standard equipment on CONTACT. And the era of bells on pin games had also begun. For, as every pinball fan knows, bells became standard features of electro-mechanical pins and remained so through the mid‑seventies. The sound of jangling bells, as well as "clacking" solenoids and stepping switches, were the characteristic sound of pinball for many years.
CONTACT was also one of the first games to use another of Harry Williams' historic inventions‑‑The "TILT" indicator. But that's another story. Although the tilt indicator was not included on the very early models of CONTACT it did become standard equipment on later ones.
By April of 1934, advertisements for CONTACT were appearing in all the major trade publications. In that same month, Pacific Amusement announced the opening of their Chicago plant to supplement the output from their Los Angeles facility. CONTACT, with its clacking solenoids and raucous bells, had taken the pinball playing nation by storm. The game could now be bought in four sizes! "A size to fit all locations", according to the advertising.
BABY CONTACT was a "counter top" version measuring just 16 by 30 inches. MASTER was next at 18 by 36. Then came JUNIOR‑‑close to the size of a modem pin at 24 by 44. While CONTACT SENIOR‑‑a whopping 30 by 60 inches‑‑was the top of the line and rounded out the CONTACT family.
Production of CONTACT continued for close to one year, a "run" almost unheard of in the pin game business before or since. During this period over 23,000 games were produced (and possibly as many as 33,000) according to Harry Williams. CONTACT had made a hit and opened a new era of pin game design‑‑electric action.
Incidently, Harry Williams applied for a patent on his milestone invention December 18, 1933. Patent 2,073,132 was issued to him in March of 1937! Not quite soon enough to have much of a deterrent effect on an industry where lead‑time is measured in days.
So much for CONTACT's fascinating history. What about the game itself) The machine in the photographs is a CONTACT JUNIOR from my personal collection. The game features two "special scoring sections" each containing three holes in vertical alignment surrounded by a "hedge" of pins (later models used molded plastic barriers). The top hole in each group is fitted beneath the playfield with one of the solenoid kicker devices capable of ejecting the ball from the hole when energized by electric current.
At the top center of the playfield there's a hole labelled CONTACT and beneath that hole a "see‑saw" like device. When a ball drops through the CONTACT hole and lands on one end of the see‑saw it tilts in the opposite direction causing an electric switch to be operated. The ball then rolls down the sloping panel underneath the playfield to the ball‑lift mechanism allowing the player to re‑use it. With the weight of the ball gone, the see‑saw returns to its normal position and re‑opens the electric switch.
The closing of the switch rings the bell and causes the solenoid "ball‑kickers" to be energized unseating any ball which might previously have landed in the upper holes of either of the "special scoring sections". A ball, once ejected from an upper hole, then rolls down and lands in one of the other two holes in that scoring section. Each of these holes, of course, has a higher scoring value than the upper hole, with the bottom hole in each case having the highest value. Thus, the CONTACT hole enabled a player to move a ball from one hole to another of higher value through the magic of electricity.
The invention of CONTACT by Harry Williams was the first major innovation in the development of pin games and marked the beginning of electric action components on the playfield. In the perspective of pinball history, only two other breakthroughs can be said to be of similar significance: the introduction of "bumpers" by Bally in late 1936 on a game called BUMPER, and the invention of "flippers" by Harry Mabs in late 1947, first introduced by Gottlieb on HUMPTY DUMPTY. The only possible addition to this list might be the invention of "Free games" (replays)‑‑a development which, not surprisingly, Harry Williams also had a hand in! But that again, is another story.
In closing, I wish to express my great thanks to a fine gentleman and credit to the pinball industry, Mr. Harry E. Williams. I not only wish to thank Mr. Williams for his great contributions to the world of pinball which we all love, I also wish to thank him for the kind and friendly cooperation he showed to me in my search into this epic of pin game history.