EVOLUTION OF THE BUMPER, By Russ Jensen
What has been the most common scoring and action device
throughout most of the history of pinball? Without too much
thought, especially by people who played pinball during the 30's,
40's, and 50's, the answer would unquestionably be, the bumper.
That device has taken on many forms since it was first conceived
by a Bally designer of the mid Thirties, but all of its forms had
two things in common, a way to score points and a way to add
extra action to the ball in play. This article will attempt to
describe the evolution of this fascinating device from its
inception in the mid Thirties to the electronic pins of today.
The earliest pingames used one, and only one, scoring
device, the hole, into which a ball would fall and be counted
according to the score value with which it was marked. The only
'action' which these games possessed, other than the ball rolling
down the playfield by gravity, was the balls hitting metal pins,
with which early playfields were studded, and being deflected
slightly by them.
A little later games employing various mechanical devices,
such as Rockola's mechanical marvels WORLD SERIES and JIGSAW,
added a little more action to the playfield, but not much to the
ball itself. Then, as most of you who have been reading my
articles should know by now, late in 1933 Harry Williams
revolutionized pingame design with the introduction of the
electric ball kicker, the forerunner of the modern 'kickout
While the kickout hole itself did not achieve great
popularity until the Forties, Harry's idea of using electric
solenoids to provide playfield action did. Many games started to
appear with various electric kickers, often referred to as
'cannons' or 'guns' On their playfields. Most of these devices
propelled balls horizontally back up the playfield, rather than
vertically out of a hole as in Harry's CONTACT. By 1936 these
electric action devices were all the rage in amusement pinball
games. Payout pins, however, tended not to use much electric
action, saving their battery power to operate coin payout
All of a sudden, late in 1936, a second major revolution in
pingame design occurred which almost overnight made electric
action games virtually obsolete for many years to come.
ENTER THE BUMPER
In December 1936 Bally first advertised their revolutionary
new game called BUMPER, which included a new type of scoring
device which was to become known 'generically' by the same name.
Bally's advertisement for this game heralded it as a "novelty
smash hit by Bally" and proclaimed in large letters "no pins, no
pockets" which was to set it apart from all previous games which
included holes ('pockets') as the primary scoring device, and a
playfield studded with 'pins' as ball deflecting devices. The
description of the new game which was included with this ad
described the new sensation thusly:
Just pure unadulterated action and suspense! Flip
the big steel ball off the plunger -- watch it race
to the top of the board -- then bump-- bump-- bump!
Down the field it goes -- crashing into giant coil
springs, each with the kick of a mule -- staggering
drunkenly from one spring to another -- weaving back
and forth - - sometimes colliding two or three times
with the same spring before skidding away to take a
crack at another spring! Every bump registers on
light-up totalizer -- awards for both high and low
score! Dizzily different! Fatally fascinating!
This ad dramatically described the new 'action' of BUMPER
which was really what made this new concept so exciting to
players. A ball traveling down a playfield could literally
bounce off of a bumper spring with much more motion than if it
were deflected by a simple pin. One early brochure for BUMPER
actually contained what was called an "action chart" which showed
a sample ball trajectory, illustrating how a typical ball might
travel in a game. This bumper 'action' was illustrated in a
comical way on the cover of this same brochure which is shown at
the start of this article.
A necessary adjunct to the bumper was another new device
introduced by Bally on BUMPER. This was the projector "score
totalizer" which indicated the player's score in the form of a
number projected on a frosted area of the game's backglass. This
became a fairly common method of pingame score indication for the
next several years, and a method of free-game display for many
This first form of bumper was very simple. It consisted of
a coil spring, the top end of which was supported by a metal top
mounted on a stud bolted to the playfield. The lower end of the
spring was bent straight down and protruded through the center of
a carbon ring embedded in the playfield. When the ball hit the
spring body of the bumper two things would happen. The
springiness of the spring would cause the ball to bounce away
from it providing the action, and the movement of the spring
caused its lower end to make contact with the carbon ring
surrounding it. This acted as an electrical switch, causing the
score, indicated by the projection "score totalizer", to be
incremented via electrical circuitry.
Bally had really 'scooped' the industry! They had brought
out a new scoring device, the bumper, which was to literally
change the face of pinball, and they also introduced a simple and
reliable score totalizer which was to become one of the two major
pinball scorekeeping devices for the next several years.
BUMPERS ALL THE RAGE!
Within a couple of months after the introduction of Bally
BUMPER other pingame manufacturers began using this revolutionary
device on their games. In March of 1937 half of the new pins
advertised in the trade publication Automatic Age featured
bumpers. In the April issue only one non-bumper game was
advertised. Bumpers were truly fast becoming "all the rage" in
the pingame world.
Not only did bumpers start appearing on novelty amusement
games such as BUMPER, but the world of one-balls and payout
machines quickly jumped on the "bumper bandwagon." Bally
themselves quickly followed BUMPER with SKIPPER, a payout version
of BUMPER, and CAROM, a one-shot payout with over 20 bumpers, an
electric 'kicker', and the popular 'changing odds' feature
typical of most payouts of the period.
One-ball payouts with horseracing themes also began
appearing with bumpers instead of the usual multi-holed playfield
which had become so popular. An example of an early bumper
horserace payout was Pacific's ROYAL RACES which came out around
March of 1937. A month later that same outfit came out with
HEAVYWEIGHT, a bumper one-shot payout with a prizefighting theme.
The introduction of the bumper allowed scoring by
'increments', ie., each strike of a bumper could represent an
advance of one scoring 'point'. This lead to the introduction of
many new pingames with baseball themes, since each hit of a
bumper could by considered as a 'base hit'. During the period of
March through May of 1937 at least four baseball bumper pins
appeared, Bally BOOSTER, Daval BASEBALL, Gottliet SCOREBOARD, and
Genco BATTER UP. Thus the invention of the bumper started a
virtual flood of baseball theme pins which was to continue for
years to come.
Early novelty bumper pins included Stoner's RICOCHET, which
used different colored bumpers to advance lighted horses on the
backglass toward a finish line (no payouts however on this
'horsey' game), and Genco's RUNNING WILD, which used bumpers to
advance scores indicated by lighted number panels on the
backglass. That score indicating method would eventually replace
the projector type totalizer, introduced in BUMPER, as the
primary means of pingame score indication until the early 1960's.
Gottliet used bumpers and a projector score totalizer
(called "flashograph" by them) in May of 1937 on an electric "21"
pingame which featured a blackjack theme. At the start of each
game lighted numbers on the backglass would indicate the "score
to beat." The balls played would advance the points shown by the
projector and the player would then try to score enough points to
beat the displayed score, presumably without going over 21. As
you can plainly see the introduction of bumpers, making possible
'incremental scoring', and the use of score totalizers, made
possible all sorts of new ideas in pinball play.
The introduction of bumpers not only brought about many new
ideas in pingame design and play features, it also essentially
"sounded the death knell" for the once popular ball 'kickers' and
'cannons'. It was not until late 1941 that the ball 'kickout
hole', which was first implemented by Harry Williams in 1934,
began again to show up on pingames. Harry Williams himself once
told me that the primary reason it took so long for the kickout
hole to catch on was the extreme popularity of the bumper.
The "spring type" bumper flourished from 1937 through 1940.
During this period several variations appeared in size, shape of
spring, types of tops, and added lighting. The spring part of
many of these bumpers was wound straight down in a cylindrical
shape, like in the original bumpers on BUMPER. Others had their
springs flared out to a larger diameter near the playfield. That
type usually had the lower end of the spring wire formed into a
small circular ring, which would encircle a small nail-like post
protruding from the playfield. These two metal parts made up the
'electric switch' for this type of bumper, rather than the
straight end of the spring protruding through a carbon ring as on
The tops, "caps", of the very early bumpers were made of
painted metal, often with a chrome-plated "cap nut" to hold them
onto the center post of the bumper unit. Later caps were made of
brightly colored plastic, some with numbers painted on them.
Spring type bumpers also appeared in various sizes, some quite
small (say about 1" in diameter), and others were larger (maybe
as large as two inches).
Some of the spring type bumpers were augmented by lights to
indicate when the particular bumper would score a larger than
normal value. The earliest form of lighting consisted of a bare
light bulb, the top of which barely protruded above the
playfield, but underneath the coiled spring area of the bumper.
Bally's VARIETY in 1939 had a hollow colored plastic tube making
up the center post of the bumper unit. A light bulb was placed
inside this tube, and when lighted, lit up the entire tube.
OTHER EARLY BUMPERS
During the period between 1937 and 1940 several new
variations of bumpers appeared which only lasted for short
periods of time (or only on one or two games), but which deserve
mention in this history of the bumper. Early in 1939 Exhibit
supply came out with a rather attractive form of bumper which
they called "wonder star" bumpers.
The tops of these bumpers were shaped like a five-pointed
star and could be lit. These bumpers resembled Christmas tree
ornaments in a star shape which were popular at that time. Two
of these bumpers were used on Exhibit's 1939 game CONTACT. The
playfield of Exhibits AVALON, a few months later, was studded
with these unique bumpers. They may have been used by Exhibit on
another game or two but I am not sure. At any rate this unique
bumper, which was very attractive when lit, is quite rare.
Another form of bumper, which was used on several games by
both Exhibit and Bally, was the "double disk" type. These
bumpers had plastic bodies with a rubber ring around them to
provide rebound action to the ball. At the bottom of the bumper
was a circular metal plate. or 'skirt', upon which the ball
would roll. The movement of this plate would cause it to make
contact with a small metal plate at the center of the bumper
unit, thus providing the bumper's "electric switch" action.
Examples of games using this type of bumper were Exhibit's GOLDEN
GATE, REBOUND, and CONQUEST, from late 1939, and Bally's ROLLER
DERBY, VOGUE, and WHITE SAILS, also of this period.
A few games were also made which had all metal playfields
and bumpers with metal skirts which would make electrical contact
with the actual playfield when a ball rolled up on them. This
technique was used by Bally on a game called MERCURY in 1937 and
by mills novelty on their very popular game "1-2-3". One problem
with metal playfields, however, was that the elaborate playfield
artwork, used on games of this period, could not be used on them.
A final example of an 'oddball' style bumper is the bell
shaped bumpers used by Genco on their 1940 classic METRO. These
plastic bumpers were formed in the shape of a bell. These 'caps'
were screwed onto a center post in such a manner that a ball
hitting the lower part of the plastic bell would cause the center
part to rock slightly and cause an electric contact to be made.
Lights placed beneath these bumpers were used to light them,
signifying a change in their scoring values. These bumpers were
quite attractive, especially when they were lit, and represented
another attempt by pingame manufacturers to improve on Bally's
original 'spring type' bumpers.
THE MOULDED PLASTIC AGE
By mid 1941 the various types of 'spring bumpers', and the
other styles as well, were replaced by a type of bumper which was
to reign almost exclusively for almost a decade as the standard
form of pinball bumper, and even after that never to die
These bumpers had a moulded plastic body, with a rubber
rebound ring around the center, much like the earlier "double
disk" bumpers. They had large plastic 'skirts' which, when a
ball rolled up on them, would cause a wire, suspended below the
playfield from the center of this skirt, to make contact with a
small metal or carbon ring which encircled it. This provided the
"electric switch" contact for the bumper.
These bumpers almost always contained light bulbs and had
plastic caps which were often labeled with a scoring value, often
indicating the bumper's value when it was lit, or some letter or
number used in some number or letter sequence scoring scheme.
While most of these bumpers were round there was a period in the
late Forties when diamond shaped plastic bumpers were used on
Until the introduction of the "powered bumper" in 1948,
these were the exclusive type of bumpers used on all pingame
playfields. And even after 1948 these bumpers were used on many
games along with their new "powered" cousins. A variation of
this bumper type is even used occasionally on todays solid state
pinballs. The later versions of these bumpers had one difference
from the early types. Instead of the skirt causing a wire to
move and make an electrical contact, the later versions had a
plastic rod attached to the center of the skirt and extending
below the playfield. This rod would move to one side when a ball
rolled onto the skirt and mechanically operate a pair of electric
The final stage in the evolution of the bumper occurred late
in 1948. The flipper was less than one year old when a new (well
almost) type of bumper made its appearance and gave pinball
another shot of "power." This new type of bumper was a "powered
bumper" which came to be called by many names such as "Pop
Bumper", "Thumper Bumper", and "Power Bumper." This new bumper
type had the added feature of actually providing additional power
to the ball in play.
In October of 1948 two games were introduced both utilizing
powered bumpers, but of a somewhat different construction.
Williams' SARATOGA used a modified version of the standard
moulded plastic bumper described above, with an added "power
ring." This form of powered bumper, which was to become the
standard form of powered bumper in the future, had a circular
metal ring which was normally held by spring tension in a
position just below the top of the bumper unit. This ring sloped
slightly downward toward the center of the bumper and had a metal
rod attached to it which extended below the playfield. The lower
end of this rod was mechanically connected to the plunger of an
electric solenoid which, when energized, would pull the ring
violently toward the playfield.
When a ball rolled onto the bumper's skirt an electrical
contact was closed below the playfield. This contact operated a
'Bumper Control Relay' which controlled two circuits. One
provided the scoring function of the bumper while the other
operated the solenoid attached to the "power ring." The ring
would thus be pulled down violently toward the playfield,
suddenly pushing the ball rapidly away from the bumper, thus
adding power to the ball's motion.
In that same month Exhibit Supply introduced still another
game called CONTACT. This, and the next few games produced by
them, utilized a different form of power bumper, which, by the
way, had been used once or twice in prewar games, but apparently
for some strange reason did not catch on at that time. This was
the so called "Exploding Spring Bumper." The action part of this
bumper was made of spring wire wound vertically in the form of a
slightly flattened sphere. A metal plate on top of this sphere
could be pulled downward toward the playfield by a solenoid
mounted below the field. When this bumper was struck by a ball
this solenoid would be energized, causing the spring sphere to be
suddenly squashed resulting in its sides flaring out and pushing
the ball away.
Even though these novel bumpers were quite dramatic in their
action, they again just did not seem to catch on, and within a
few months all amusement pinballs were equipped with powered
bumpers similar to those introduced on SARATOGA. In fact, that
form of powered bumper is essentially the same in construction as
the "thumper bumpers" used today in most solid state pinballs.
There was one other form of bumper which was used for a
short time around 1970. It was introduced by Bally and called
the "Mushroom Bumper". It was not a powered bumper and only
provided scoring. The top of this bumper was shaped somewhat
like a mushroom and the ball would push the top up from
underneath. This upward movement of the bumper would operate an
electrical contact under the playfield to cause points to be
That's the story of the pinball scoring device generically
known as the "bumper". It started in a rather simple form with
the introduction of the game after which it was named, and after
numerous modifications, some small and some not so small, it
finally emerged as a combination scoring and action component
which is still in use almost fifty years later.
© Copyright 2002 By Russ Jensen and http://vpstuff.rolandscholz.de