by Russ Jensen
One of the first pinball articles I ever wrote (actually my fourth)
was published in June 1979 in a small publication called Amusement
Review. The article was titled "Pinball Dating". The idea behind that
article was to describe the changes in the pinball machine over the
years to aid a person in determining the year of manufacture of a game
he might see or have described to him. That article was reprinted a
little later in the February 1981 issue of COIN SLOT.
There was one thing, however, that was wrong with that original
article. That was that it was not accompanied by any photographs! For
that reason (plus the fact that it has been over 10 years since it was
last published) I have decided to reissue "Pinball Dating"; this time
well illustrated and with a few other improvements. In fact, this
article will be sort of a 'thumbnail photographic history' of the
pinball machine. So here goes!
How can you date a pinball? If you know the name of the game and
it's manufacturer, and have a list of names and dates, you can just look
it up! But if you don't have such a list, or just have a description of
some of the physical and playfield characteristics of the game (or the
game is not on your list), then you must resort to other means. The
following is a discussion, with illustrations, of some of the telltale
signs which should enable one to approximate the date of manufacture of
a given game, at least to within a few years.
Before we talk about how to date a game however, lets talk about
how not to. Probably the most common mistake made by the uninformed
when trying to determine the date of a pinball machine is to go by
patent numbers found somewhere on the machine. The most common place
where patent numbers are found, especially on older games, is probably
on the coin chute. This, however, is the worst place to find reliable
dating information since coin mechanisms have been around for a long
time, and a patented feature may have been developed in the 1920's, or
even before. The only information you can gain from a patent number is
that the game in question was made sometime after the latest patent date
found on it.
THE PRE-WAR YEARS
Pinballs of the 'pioneer period' (1931 - 1936) are probably the
easiest to date, with the possible exception of the 1946 to 1949 era.
The 'scoring objective' in almost all cases in this early period was the
playfield hole, until the introduction of the bumper in 1936.
Most of the games of 1931/32 were 'counter top' models, with only
holes and metal pins on their playfields. A few had legs late in 1932,
and stands were also available for some models.
By 1933 most machines came equipped with legs, but the games still
had passive holes and no type of 'action'. An exception to this were a
few mechanical games, such as Rockola's WORLD SERIES and JIGSAW, which
had some 'mechanical action' features, powered either by the weight of
the ball itself or by a spring wound up by the player pushing in the
In 1934 games with battery operated kickers or 'guns' started to
appear, and by the second half of the year many games had such 'action
devices'. By the end of 1934 electric lights could be found on the
playfields of a few games. This year also saw the introduction of bells
in a few models.
Most pingames of 1935 had electric kickers; many also having
lights, either on the playfield or on the short (approximately 4 to 6
inches high) backboards which started to appear on many games. By the
later part of that year about one out of every three pins had some form
of backboard. Also in 1935, the switch from battery power to 'house
current' (A.C.) began.
In 1936 the number of games with backboards increased rapidly as
did the use of A.C. power, which by the end of the year was used on most
machines. In June 1936 Rockola introduced a game, TOTALITE, with an
electric light indicating score totalizer which would become the common
method of pinball scorekeeping until the end of the 1950's.
The year 1936 was also very important in pinball history because in
December Bally introduced the 'bumper' to pinball! The hole was no
longer the principal pinball scoring objective.
The games of 1937 and 1938 generally had spring type bumpers. Most
of the earlier games of that period had short backboards (approximately
6 to 10 inches in height), but by the end of 1938 many had tall
Pingames of the period between 1939 and 1941 can generally be
described as having tall backboards (about the height of those in use
today), some form of bumper, and no 'kickout holes' (except for a few
Exhibit Supply games made in late 1941). About the only way to
distinguish between these three years was the style of bumper used.
The earliest form of bumper, the 'spring type' (see photo) which
was similar to those used on Bally's BUMPER, will be found on most games
of this period from all manufacturers until the later part of 1939, and
by many up until late 1940. For a short period of time in 1939 a few
manufacturers (primarily Exhibit and Bally) used a different style of
bumper which I shall call the 'double disk type' (see photo).
By the end of 1940, or early 1941 at the latest, all manufacturers
were using the molded plastic type bumpers of the type common throughout
the rest of the 1940,s, the 1950's, and even later on a few games.
Scoring in this period was almost always by lighted panels on the
backglass with scores in the hundreds, thousands and tens of thousands.
Some of the earlier games of the period, however, used projected scores
on the backboard either in increments of 1 or 10.
THE WAR, AND AFTER
During World War II pinball production was discontinued "for the
duration". The only 'new' games coming out during this period were
'conversions' of prewar games. Since the style of these games was
essentially the same as the pre-war games from which they were
converted, the only way to tell them apart was that the 'conversions'
generally had 'war themes'. This, however, is not always indicative of
a 'wartime conversion' as some games with 'war themes' came out quite
awhile before America's entry into the conflict.
Most games made in 1946 and 1947 can be separated from those made
before the War by the fact that they had 'kickout holes'. The only
exception to this were the pre-war Exhibit games previously mentioned.
During the period from the end of World War II to 1950, several
changes were made to pinballs, making games made during this period
easier to date. The most significant of these changes of course was the
introduction of the flipper by Gottlieb on HUMPTY DUMPTY in December
1947. Within a month or two all amusement pinballs had this
revolutionary new device.
After flippers, the next significant development for pins was the
'pop bumper' in late 1948. By 1949 virtually all amusement pinballs
were so equipped. Also, in the late Forties the switch to the 'drop-in'
coin mechanism began. As far as flipper games were concerned, United
was first in mid 1949, followed shortly by Gottlieb. Williams was the
last to make this change, not doing so until 1952. It should be noted
that Bally used a 'drop-in' coin acceptor on their 1-ball horserace
multiple coin machines starting with VICTORY DERBY right after the war.
Another characteristic which can help in dating games made between
1946 and 1950 is the 'value system' used in scoring. When pingame
manufacture began again shortly after the war the score values were at
first the same as before the war, the maximum scores ranging from 40,000
The first change in this was in 1947 when scores ranging into the
hundreds of thousands began to be used. Then, late in 1947, Williams
began introducing games with scores which could top ONE MILLION. By the
beginning of 1949 all manufacturers had adopted 'million scoring', and
this was true of all 'non reel scoring' games to come. It is
interesting to note that 'million scoring' began reappearing on the
solid-state pins of the 1980's and currently in the 1990's manufacturers
are adopting scoring systems going INTO THE BILLIONS.
THE "GOLDEN YEARS"
Games made during the decade of the 1950's (often referred as
pinball's "Golden Years") are probably the hardest to date since few
major changes to the game occurred during that period. All amusement
pins had flippers, pop-bumpers, kickout holes, and scores which ran up
into the Millions (except for 'multi-player', 'reel scoring' games).
The first multi-player pingame was made in 1954 (Gottlieb's SUPER
JUMBO), therefore all multi-player wood rail games were made between
1954 and the end of the decade. Williams made a few 'reel scoring'
single player games in 1953 which used fake zeros so that the scores
still ran into the Millions. They then reverted back to 'light scoring'
for single player games until 1961.
The other significant changes made to pins during the 1950's were
the introduction of the 'slingshot kicker' (sometimes called a 'kicking
rubber') and metal legs. The slingshot kicker was first introduced by
Gottlieb in 1951, however it appears that Williams did not adopt it's
use until sometime later. Metal legs replaced wooden ones on pinballs
in mid 1957. This however may not always be a good way to date a game
today since the legs may have been changed in later years.
Two major changes occurred to pinballs around 1960 which made it
easier to tell if a machine was made before or after the 1959-1961 time
frame. Sometime around 1960 the wooden side rails (the rails that hold
the playfield glass) gave way to stainless steel. Also about that time,
score indication by means of lights on single player games was replaced
by the use of digital 'score reels'.
Gottlieb produced a single player reel scoring game (UNIVERSE) in
1959, reverted back to light scoring for awhile, but by mid 1960 went
completely to reel scoring. Williams, on the other hand, did not go to
reel scoring on single players until mid 1961, except for the few
'million scoring' score reel games mentioned earlier.
In late 1964 and early 1965 another major change occurred. All
amusement pingames made before that had a lever on the front of the
cabinet used to raise the balls to the level of the playfield for
shooting, and contained 5 separate balls. This lever was eliminated at
this time and a 'ball return solenoid' added to return an 'out ball' to
the plunger for reuse. The absence of this ball lift lever therefore
indicates a game made in the post 1964/1965 period.
Pingames made in the 1970's, up until the introduction of solid-
state circuitry in 1977/78, were not too much different than those made
in the late 1960's so that period is quite a bit harder to date.
Solid-state pingames, of course, were all made after 1977, and are also
beyond the scope of this article.
In conclusion, the information given in this article should enable
anyone to determine the date of manufacture of a given pre 1964/1965
pinball machine to within 1 to 6 or 7 years, depending on the era
JENSEN PHOTO CAPTIONS
1 WAMPUM BANK - by Sunnisam Games - 1932 'counter top' pingame.
(Note holes and 'pins'.)
2 BABY CONTACT by Pacific Amusement - 1934 - 1st 'electric
3 Daval's SPOT-LITE - 1935 - example of early short 'light-up'
4 Bally's BUMPER - 1936 - 1st pingame with 'bumpers' and 'score
5A Medium sized backboard of Stoner's ELECTRO - 1938 - Has
lighted score indication in water wheel (100's) and tower
(1000's). (Author's collection)
5B Playfield of ELECTRO with 'modified' spring bumpers.
6A Tall backboard of Bally's VARIETY - 1939 (author's collection)
6B Playfield of VARIETY with 'spring type' bumpers.
7 Partial playfield view of Bally's 1939 pingame ROLLER DERBY
- example of 'double disk' bumpers. (Richard Conger collection)
8A Backglass of Gottlieb's SPOT POOL - 1941 (John Campbell
8B SPOT POOL playfield with 'molded plastic bumpers'.
9A Backglass of Williams' FLAT TOP - 1945 - 'wartime conversion' of
prewar Bally games. (Stan Muraski collection)
9B FLAT TOP playfield.
10A Backglass of Williams' CYCLONE - 1947 - example of postwar
pre-flipper pin. (Note scores into 100,000's.)
10B CYCLONE playfield. (Note numerous 'kickout holes'.)
11A Backglass of 1st flipper game by Genco - TRIPLE ACTION
- 1948 - designed by Steve Kordek.
11B TRIPLE ACTION playfield.
12 Partial playfield view of Williams' GEORGIA - 1950 - showing
13A Backglass of Williams' SHOO SHOO - 1951 - 'million scoring'
flipper pin, typical of "Pinball's Golden Age".
13B SHOO SHOO playfield.
14A Backglass (art by Roy Parker) of Gottlieb's SEVEN SEAS - 1959
- example of 'multi-player' 'wood rail' pingame.
14B SEVEN SEAS playfield.
15A Backglass of Gottlieb's FLIPPER CLOWN - 1962
15B FLIPPER CLOWN playfield.
(Note stainless steel side rails, and ball 'push-up lever'
directly below plunger.)
16A Backglass of Williams' MAGIC CITY - 1967
16B MAGIC CITY playfield.
(Note absence of 'push-up lever' denoting use of 'ball return
17A Backglass of Bally's FLIP-FLOP - 1974 - typical 70's 'electro-
17B FLIP-FLOP playfield.