by Russ Jensen
(THIS ARTICLE WAS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN "COIN SLOT" AUG/SEP
Many pinball collectors with which I have spoken are either
completely unaware, or only vaguely aware, of one fascinating
sidelight of the colorful history of pinball, namely the
"conversion game." What is a "conversion?" Generally speaking, it
is a game which has been some way converted into a different game
utilizing anywhere from a few to many of the components of the
original machine. Many people who have heard of conversions only
know about those made during World War II ("Wartime
Conversions"). This was the period during which most of these
"conversions" were produced, mainly because the manufacture of
all new amusement machines was prohibited during that period.
Conversions, of one another, have been around however since
the earliest years of the pinball industry. The earliest form of
a "conversion" was a "do it yourself" job. This was in the form
of a so-called "replacement board." In this case a new playfield
was used to replace the original one of a mechanical pingame,
turning it into a new game with a different name, and play and
scoring features. Famed pingame designer and manufacturer, Harry
Williams, actually got started in game design by designing some
of these "replacement boards."
Sometimes these boards were put out by game manufacturers as
an added inducement to operators to buy their games. The
manufacturer pointed out in his advertising that an operator
could buy "two games for the price of one." Other "boards" were
put out by small outfits hoping to cash in on the "pinball boom"
that was occurring in the early thirties. These small companies
created "boards" that would fit (or could be made to fit) one or
more different machines which were made by other larger game
In June of 1932 an advertisement from "The Artists and
Creators Guild" appeared in AUTOMATIC AGE concerning "replacement
boards" put out by that outfit. One side of their ad indicated
that they had five or six boards to be used with a game called
VARIETY (probably the game of that name made by Atlas Indicator
Works some months earlier). The four boards that were illustrated
were titled PAR GOLF, JACKPOT, WORLD SERIES, and DERBY DAY, each
having a different theme. In this same ad they offered a complete
game called KRAZY COMICS (presumably of their manufacture) and
implied these same boards were available as replacements for it.
Incident- ally, the price of this complete game was $12.50, with
$3.00 each being charged for these "replacement boards."
At about this same time the Exhibit Supply Company
(manufacturer of arcade and counter top games, and soon to become
one of the significant pingame manufacturers of the thirties and
forties) advertised a new pingame called PLAYBALL. The ad
indicated that the playfield could be bought as a "replacement
board" for other games with approximately the same cabinet
dimensions. Their price for this board was $4.50, but this also
included a "scoring device" (whatever that was), underneath fibre
board, and ten colored marbles.
A few years later (after the introduction of "electric
action" to pinball by Harry Williams with his game CONTACT) at
least one company offered "replacement boards" converting
strictly mechanical games into "electric action" ones. In
December 1934 the Globe Manufacturing Co. of Chicago advertised a
"replacement board" called "66" which could be used on Rockola's
WORLD SERIES or JIGSAW or Mills' OFFICIAL. While this was not
electrical, that company's next offering was. In March 1935 Globe
offered a board called WEST- BOUND for use with these same three
games. This board boasted two "electric kickers" which the ad
said "transformed your obsolete games into clever electrical
As a sidelight to the story of "replacement boards" I would
like to mention a game I personally own. The name on the
playfield is BIG CHIEF but the cabinet appears identical to the
first Bally game, BALLYHOO (except for a different style of coin
mechanism). I have a strong suspicion that this was somebody's
"replacement board" for BALLYHOO, but as yet I have not been able
to either prove or disprove this.
One of the early examples of a more extensive "conversion"
occurred in late 1937 when a Philadelphia outfit, known as the
Glickman Company, put an ad in the trade publication AUTOMATIC
AGE which began "OPERATORS! Let Us Convert Your Bumper Games Into
a Game Called POKO-LITE." This ad invited operators to send
them their Bally BUMPERs, and for $16.50 (not including shipping)
they would "convert" them to a "new" game. This "conversion"
consisted of a new backglass, a new cabinet paint job, and a
score projector which displayed different five card "poker hands"
each time a bumper was struck by a ball (instead of the advancing
score numbers used on the original Bally BUMPER unit). The ad
further boasted "you and your customers won't recognize the game,
it is so converted." I don't know how many "takers" they had but
this idea certainly paralleled the "wartime conversions" to be
About six months later, this same company advertised an even
more extensive conversion. This time they offered to convert
Bally's SKIPPER (the payout version of BUMPER) into a game called
TREASURE. In addition to a new backglass and cabinet paint job,
they stated that "the playing field (is) completely changed" and
they also boasted of a "new award idea." The ad did not describe
the changes to the playing field but the award idea was
described. Every fourth coin deposited would increase a payout
"kitty" by "one point" (presumably five cents). This "kitty"
started out at $1.00 and had a maximum of $3.25. The amount of
this "jackpot" was displayed on the backglass using a number
"projector." A player attaining a high score over 380 points
during a game would receive this "jackpot" which then would start
over at $1.00. This concept is the "Reserve" idea which was used
by many of the later payout pingames, including Bally's RESERVE
Speaking of Bally's RESERVE, a few years ago a pinball
collector ran across a game that was called DAILY DOZEN. He
noticed that his game looked almost identical to RESERVE but had
no manufacturer's name on the backglass. Stamped on the underside
of the cabinet he saw the name of the Mike Munvez Co. of New York
City, one of the large game distributors of that city. He
speculated that this was possibly a "conversion" of Bally RESERVE
done by that outfit but was never able to find out so it still
remains a mystery.
THE WAR YEARS
As I stated at the beginning of this article, when most
people think of "pingame conversions" they think of those
produced during World War II. This is when a large majority of
"conversions" were produced due to the fact that pingames were
considered "non- essential" and their manufacture banned "for the
duration." This was because the electrical and metallic
components utilized materials vital to the war effort.
Probably the largest concern producing ''wartime
conversions" was the United Manufacturing Co. of Chicago. This
outfit was founded by pinball pioneer Harry Williams and his
friend and fellow game designer Lyndon ("Lyn") Durant. These two
had been working for Exhibit Supply Co. when the war broke out
and decided to form their own company to repair games, hoping
also to get defense related sub-contracts.
Harry and Lyn decided to try converting old games to new
ones without using additional electrical or mechanical parts
which could not even be obtained for non-war essential purposes.
The United conversions utilized the electrical and mechanical
parts, and the wooden cabinets, of the old games. New playfields
and backglasses were made. In addition, they contracted with
Advertising Posters Co. (the major game "artwork" company in
Chicago from the thirties to the present time) to provide
"decals" to be used to add new artwork to the sides of the old
cabinets. The results were remarkable, a "new" game from an
obsolete one without using any war critical materials.
In less than a year Harry Williams had sold his share of
United to Lyn Durant and went on to form a new company, Williams
Manufacturing. United continued building conversions, producing
around a dozen different models during the war. At war's end,
United began manufacturing new pingames (and later shuffle
alleys, "bingos," and other games) up into the fifties.
Harry's new Williams Manufacturing (forerunner of the
current Williams Electronics) began producing game conversions of
its own. The first Williams conversion (although not a pingame)
was an arcade "fortune telling" machine called SUPERSCOPE. This
was followed by an "upright" pingame type machine called ZINGO,
an example of which currently resides in the Fred Roth collection
in Thousand Oaks California. Williams also produced two standard
pingame conversions, FLAT TOP and LAURA, during the latter part
of the war. They began to manufacture new pingames (starting with
SUSPENSE) after the war ended. During the war Williams
Manufacturing, like many other manufacturers of that time, was
also engaged in producing defense related products.
Conversions like those made by United and Williams are what
I refer to as "major conversions" in that new playfields were
fabricated (including a new arrangement of bumpers and other
scoring devices) as well as new backglasses. Another type of
conversion was also made during the war, which I call "mini
conversions." One of the producers of this type of conversion was
an outfit calling itself "Victory Games." Their idea was simple
and inexpensive for the operator. An operator would ship Victory
an old game and they would install a new backglass (with a new
name), new bumper caps and instruction cards, and return the game
to the operator as a "new game." No other changes were made to
the original game. This was done for a cost of about $13.00 per
game (shipping not included).
Amusement pinballs were not the only ones "converted" during
the war. Another popular type of pingame that was often converted
was the "one-ball' horserace machine." Several outfits such as
Bell Products, Westerhaus, etc., "revamped" those popular games.
Although at this time I have no definite information, one way or
the other, I tend to believe that many (if not all) of these
one-ball conversions were of the "mini" type described above.
Another outfit that went into business during the war making
conversions, and then made a few new pingames after the war, was
the Marvel Manufacturing Company of Chicago. They produced
several conversion models during the war of the "amusement type."
Many of the conversions made during the war (such as the
"mini" conversion) required a particular model of an old game to
produce a given "new" game. Other conversions could be made from
any of several different machines since primarily only electrical
components were used from the old game. The advertisements for
these "conversions" in the trade publications usually specified
the "old" game or games from which each conversion could be made.
As was stated earlier, in some cases an operator would provide
his old game to a conversion company to be converted into a "new"
game for him. In other cases the conversion companies would buy
old games from operators, convert them (or use their parts), and
sell the new conversion to other operators.
To give some idea of the number of "conversions" done during
the World War II era, a list "Revamps" appeared in January 13,
1947 issue of CASHBOX magazine. This listed approximately 80
"amusement" pinball conversions and 11 "one-ball horserace"
conversions. Although a few of the games listed were produced
after the wars' end, most of them were made during the war.
After the war ended the production of new pinballs was not
all that immediate. It took some time for a large quantity of new
parts to become available and for plants to "tool up" to return
to full scale production, especially the smaller manufacturers.
The large companies, Bally, Gottlieb and Williams put out their
first new games not long after the war ended. Other smaller
manufacturers, such as Marvel, took a little longer and still
did a few conversions in 1946. Victory Games continued with
their "mini" conversions for a short time after the war ended but
then faded from the scene.
Then, in December 1947, came that revolutionary change in
pingame design, the invention and introduction of the "flipper!"
This resulted in another type of postwar conversion, the "flipper
The introduction of the flipper made such a radical change
to the game of pinball that the older "pre-flipper" games became
obsolete almost overnight. Soon enterprizing outfits, such as
Chicago's large "parts house," WICO, began producing "flipper
conversion kits." These "do-it-yourself" items would allow an
operator to convert one of his "obsolete" games into the latest
rage, the "flipper game." The biggest problem with this was that
operators were not game designers and the locations on the
playfield which they would choose to place flippers were usually
not the most desirable taking the overall game play strategy into
account. But nevertheless, many "pre-flipper" games were quickly
"flipperized" by operators hoping to keep their game investments
(prices for post war games were at least double that of their
pre-war predecessors) paying off at least a little bit longer.
Within the next several years, several smaller outfits, such
as Nate Schneller, Inc. (also known as NASCO) began converting
pre- flipper games into flipper games. The games chosen to
convert from were good post-war models, especially Uniteds, and
the placement of the flippers was more carefully chosen than in
the "do-it-yourself" models. In addition, new backglasses, score
cards, etc., were provided giving the appearance to players that
these were "brand new" games. There was at least one instance of
a flipper game itself being "converted" into a "new game." Some
outfit, the identity of which I have not yet been able to track
down, took the first flipper game (HUMPTY DUMPTY, the game that
started it all) and converted it to "CROWN JEWEL," which I
suspect was a "mini" conversion as previously described.
There was also instances of post-war conversions of
"one-ball horserace machines." A West Coast collector recently
turned up a game called THOROBRED with no manufacturer's name
indicated on it. The game appeared to be a conversion of Bally's
1949 one-ball hit, CITATION. This conversion probably was of the
"mini" type. without any changes to the "innards" of the machine.
A more extensive one-ball "conversion" was performed in late
1951 (at the end of the "one-ball era"). An advertisement
appeared in the December 15, 1951 issue of BILLBOARD magazine for
a game called OLD HILLTOP. It was not actually stated who
"manufactured" this game, but two outfits were listed as
distributors, Empire Coin Machine Exchange of Chicago, and
General Vending Sales Corp. of Baltimore. This game was
apparently a conversion of the popular one-ball game of 1950,
Universal's WINNER. The ad stated "OLD HILLTOP combines all the
famous features of Universal's WINNER with new exciting action
getting thrillers!" The ad then proceeded to declare "OLD HILLTOP
is not a 'conversion.' All new factory parts, factory assembled,
factory engineered. All new wiring color-coded to existing
circuits." Finally they indicated a "brand new 15-color
backglass in beautiful striking design was also provided.
It would appear from this ad that they took a WINNER, added
some changes to it, using new parts and wiring where necessary,
and added a new backglass. What they apparently meant by it "not
being a conversion" was that new (rather than used) parts were
used to implement the new added features. How many of these
machines were actually produced is a matter of conjecture, but
being offered at such a late date (the Johnson Act had all but
outlawed "one-balls" in this country by that time) one would
think that their market was rather limited.
The early fifties appeared to be the end of the "conversion
era." During the later fifties, sixties, and seventies no pingame
conversions were produced to my knowledge. In the early eighties
the conversion idea infiltrated the "new kid on the block," the
"video game." Some of these "video conversions" were 'illegal'
infringements of game copyrights, but many were legitimate, some
even being produced by the game manufacturers themselves. But
enough about videos! What about new pingame conversions? Well, a
few years ago I heard a rumor that manufacturers of solid-state
pinballs were going to start producing replacement playfields and
backglasses (plus electronic 'chip' replacements), allowing
operators to "convert" an old game into a new one without paying
for a new cabinet or the majority of the electronic circuitry.
This appeared to be only a rumor since no such "conversions" were
subsequently produced, until now that is.
Recently Gottlieb announced two new solid state pinballs.
These games, SUPER ORBIT and ROYAL FLUSH DELUXE, were interesting
in two respects. First, they were modern versions of two earlier
Gottlieb electro-mechanical pinballs: ORBIT (of 1972) and ROYAL
FLUSH (of 1976). This "going back to the good old days," was
further emphasized by the games being produced in "narrow body"
cabinets instead of the wider cabinets used by most pins today.
Gottlieb alluded to this in their ad for ROYAL FLUSH DELUXE by
stating "nothing beats Gottlieb's Royal Flush Deluxe for good,
old fashioned fun - pinball style."
The most interesting thing about these new Gottlieb
offerings was announced in a "bulletin" recently sent out by that
company. The announcement was headed "Pinball Conversions as easy
as 1, 2, 3." This announcement stated "Starting with SUPER ORBIT,
all future Gottlieb narrow-body pinballs will be designed to
convert to any new game in 15 minutes or less. Right on
location!" It declared that the conversion would consist of: 1) A
complete new playfield (which exchanges with the old one and
plugs into the existing wiring harness), 2) New game and sound
proms (electronic chips) to be inserted into existing control and
sound boards, and 3) New backglass, to be installed in place of
the original one.
So with this announcement it looks like we have come "full
circle." From pingame "replacement boards" in pinballs first
years in the early thirties, to "conversions, eighties style,"
replacing the playfields, and what ever else is necessary to
convert an "old game" into a "new one." Will this trend continue?
Will Bally start coming out with pingame "conversions?" Only time
will tell. As Gottlieb pointed out in their conversion
announcement "in order to be competitive in today's marketplace,
an operator needs an effective alternative to extend the
profitable lifetime of his equipment." It looks like pinball and
video conversions may be the answer. Who knows? Anyway, game
conversions have always served a purpose during their fascinating
history, sometimes to give operators a cost effective way to
utilize the equipment they purchase, and other times to produce
games when there were no parts available.
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