THE EVOLUTION OF THE FLIPPER
by Russ Jensen
(AUTHOR'S NOTE: This article was written at the suggestion of
French coin-op magazine publisher Yves Erard for his publication
PIJAMA. Due to a one year hiatus in the publication of PIJAMA it
will not be published in French until sometime later. I have
decided that it should be published in English in COIN SLOT)
Before beginning my story of the flipper I would like to
acknowledge the help of three people in my research for this
article. My good friend and pinball collector/historian, Sam
Harvey (using his vast pinball flyer collection) provided valuable
information regarding the various changes by different
manufacturers of flipper configurations over the years.
Another friend and pinball historian, Rob Hawkins, provided me
with copies of many BILLBOARD magazine ads illustrating the first
flipper games by several manufacturers. And last, but not least,
Steve Kordek (of Williams/Bally/Midway Games) graciously researched
more old BILLBOARD magazines to determine the first flipper game by
United Manufacturing (which incidentally was manufactured in the
very building where Steve currently works).
What do most pinball historians and industry people believe is
the single greatest invention in the history of pinball? The
answer is the flipper. The primary reason given for this is that
the flipper finally introduced a high degree of "skill" to the
This had two results. First, it let the player have more
control over his final score, giving him more enjoyment in playing.
Secondly, it began to end the argument used by many of the game's
detractors that pinball was only a "game of chance" whose primary
use was for gambling.
EARLY "BALL CONTROL"
Before describing this invention, and then it's improvements
over the years, I would like to briefly discuss some very early
attempts to give the pinball player some measure of control over
the movement of the ball.
Early in 1932 (the first year of substantial pingame
production) an outfit called Bay City Games in Bay City, Michigan
put out a little game called KOW TOW. This game had no plunger to
propel the ball. Instead the player used a "cue stick" (similar to
that used in the game of Billiards) to propel the ball onto the
KOW TOW was very crude, it not being too far advanced from
pinball's early ancestor the game of Bagatelle. The use of the cue
stick caused it to even more closely simulate that ancestor. The
playfield scoring features were simple pin-guarded holes, but this
was typical of all pingames of the period.
Not long after that game appeared, Rockola (a firm well known
for it's juke boxes) introduced a game called JUGGLE BALL. This
game had a player controlled stick device (somewhat similar to a
cue stick) with which the player could influence the ball in play
using a handle protruding from the front of the machine.
JUGGLE BALL was quite a lot more sophisticated than KOW TOW,
having a ball launching device. The playfield, even though only
providing holes (both round and elongated) as scoring objectives,
boasted attractive color artwork.
Even though the two early games mentioned above provided the
player some form of ball control, they could in no way be said to
have anything resembling flippers. There was, however, another
pingame from that same year which could even be broadly considered
to be "the first flipper game".
That game was called DOUBLE SHUFFLE and was released by the
Hercules Novelty Company sometime around the Fall of 1932. DOUBLE
SHUFFLE had seven ball hitting devices on it's playfield (3 on the
left side and 4 on the right).
The set on each side of the game was controlled by a separate
player operated lever at the lower end of the playfield. When
either lever was manipulated by the player the set of ball hitting
"flippers" on that side of the field would move in unison
contacting and propelling any balls with which they came into
contact, giving the player a fair degree of control over the ball
It will be noted shortly that a similar arrangement appeared
on the first electric flipper game some fifteen years later.
DOUBLE SHUFFLE was indeed far ahead of it's time. It should also
be noted here that after 1932, up until 1947, no pingames (at least
as far as I am aware) contained any significant player operated
ball control device.
THE "YEAR OF THE FLIPPER"
In the year of 1947 at least two pinball manufacturers got the
idea of providing the player some way of manually influencing the
ball in play. In previous years (with the exception of the few
early games previously mentioned) the player had only two primary
methods of "ball control".
The first of these was by his plunger shot (how far he pulled
back the spring-loaded ball shooting device before releasing it and
launching the ball onto the playfield). The second way was by
"gunching" (moving the front of the cabinet slightly using the
palms of the hands). If done at the proper time, this could have
a good influence on the path of the ball, especially when it came
into contact with one of the rubber rings surrounding many
playfields devices such as the bumpers.
Well, around the Fall of 1947 Bally came out with a game
called NUDGY which was designed to simulate "gunching". It had a
playfield with a mechanical device connected to it by which the
player could move the whole playfield backward or forward slightly
by use of a lever on the side of the cabinet.
This game, however, did not seem to catch on with players.
This may have been because the player thought that he could do a
better job of "gunching" on his own without the help of any
Then, late that same year, D. Gottlieb and Company's chief
designer, Mr. Harry Mabs, revolutionized the industry with his new
"flipper bumpers". This new device was really not too different
from the player controlled "bats" which had been used in the past
on coin-operated baseball games.
Mabs' new device was first used on Gottlieb's HUMPTY DUMPTY
which was first advertised in November 1947. This was also the
first in a series of Gottlieb pinballs whose artwork themes were
based on children's fairy tales and nursery rhymes, and which today
are referred to by many pinball collectors as the "Fairy Tale
The new "flipper bumpers" (as they were called on Gottlieb's
advertisements for the game) consisted of six rubber-ringed oblong
"bats" arranged in two sets of three, each set located on each side
of the playfield. Each group of three was tied together underneath
the playfield by a mechanical linkage bar which, when moved by
current flowing through a solenoid coil, would rotate the three
flippers attached to it through a small arc, pushing any ball which
was in contact (or near) any of the three flippers on that side of
Each of the two solenoid coils were actuated by the player
pressing a button on the side of the cabinet on the appropriate
side of the game. Thus, each set of three flippers could be
operated independently of the other set at the player's discretion.
This was not true on early flipper games by most other companies as
This "three on a side" flipper arrangement made it possible
for a skilful player to cause a ball at the lower end of the
playfield to be flipped to the upper end by subsequently "batting"
it from one flipper to the one above it. This was somewhat
difficult to do, however, since the single coil operating three
flippers at once made for very weak and "sluggish" flipper action.
The six flipper arrangement of the Gottlieb "Fairy Tail
Series" was not copied by their competitors, but the idea of using
"flippers" certainly was! Following is a brief description of the
first "flipper games" of other pinball manufacturers of the time.
The first Williams game to use flippers was SUNNY which came
out around January of 1948. SUNNY had four flippers, 2 just above
the center of the playfield and 2 near the bottom. The bottom
flippers, however, were near the sides of the field, not near the
"outhole" as was soon to become a more or less "standard" location
for flippers for years to come.
Another early use of flippers by another major manufacturer
was on Bally's MELODY which came out around February 1948. That
game had two flippers located just above the center of the
playfield; one on each side.
Early flipper games by some other manufacturers (all coming
out around February 1948) included Keeney's COVER GIRL (4 flippers
- 2 just below the center of the field and 2 above), Exhibit's
BUILD UP (2 just below the center), and Chicago Coin's BERMUDA (2
just below the center also).
The astute reader probably has observed by now that none of
the early flipper games described above had two flippers in the
extreme lower end of the playfield as they have been on a large
majority of the pingames produced since that time. The credit for
first placing flippers in their "standard location" goes to Mr.
Steve Kordek (who incidentally, helped me with some information
regarding early United flipper games for this article) and the
company he worked for in 1947, Genco Manufacturing.
Steve himself has told the story to many people and it goes
something like this: When HUMPTY DUMPTY first came out all the
pinball companies of that time could plainly see that if they were
to "survive" they would have to add flippers to their games.
Well, at Genco their chief game designer Harvey Heiss just
happened to be in the hospital at that time. His junior designer
Steve Kordek was therefore asked by Genco's management to design a
flipper game to show at the annual coin machine show scheduled in
January - not much time at all!
Steve went right to work and designed a game which he called
TRIPLE ACTION. It, of course, had flippers, but not six as on
HUMPTY DUMPTY, or even four - it had only two! Not only that, but
they were located at the lower end of the playfield close to the
area where the ball usually goes into the "out hole".
This was very close to the way flippers were placed for many
years to come, but there still were three differences. First, they
were pointed in the opposite direction. Second, when the player
pressed a flipper button (on either side of the cabinet) both
flippers were activated at the same time.
The final difference was that when a button was pressed the
flippers would flip, but then (due to special game circuitry)
return to their "at rest" position. This "single flip" operation
was also used by some other manufacturers, such as Williams, for
several years to come.
The Gottlieb flippers, on the other hand, always used the
button on each side of the cabinet to only operate the flipper(s)
on that side of the field. And, if a button was pressed, the
corresponding flipper(s) would remain energized until the player
released the button.
The last company to put flippers on their pinballs was United
Manufacturing. Their last game not to have them was MANHATTAN
which was released before March of 1948. United's first flipper
game was apparently WISCONSIN, coming out around April of that
WISCONSIN had two flippers located above the center of the
playfield, one on each side. United's flippers, however, were of
a different construction than those used by other manufacturers.
Each flipper consisted of a metal plate (the bottom of the
flipper) on which was mounted two short metal posts, each with a
groove at the top so a rubber ring could be stretched between them.
When the flipper was operated, this rubber ring was what
actually hit the ball, causing it to be repelled. As far as I can
determine United never used the standard solid body plastic flipper
used by all other pingame manufacturers. At least United's strange
style flippers were still used on their YUMA ARIZONA (possibly
their last flipper game) which came out in the Spring of 1950.
Before leaving the early flipper period of the late 1940's, I
believe a couple comments are in order. The first deals with the
kits that were available at that time so that operators could
"upgrade" their now almost obsolete "non-flipper games" to the
latest rage. Long-time coin machine parts supplier WICO (still
active today) was one of the major distributors of those kits.
There was, however, two major problems with operators adding
these kits to pre-flipper pins. The first was that operators
generally had no idea where to locate the flippers on the
playfield. As a result many of these "flipper conversions" had
flippers in a position where they often were of little use to the
Now, if the operator (either accidently or on purpose)
succeeded in locating the flippers where they were useful to the
player, a second problem often resulted. The scoring system of the
unmodified games was based on each ball essentially traveling in a
general downward direction from the top to the bottom of the
When flippers were added, a skillful player could keep the
ball in play longer than he could on the original game by flipping
it back up the field at various times. This could result in much
higher final scores (often near the maximum the game could
register) making the setting of replay-evoking scores more
difficult for the operator.
Even with these problems which were encountered when flippers
were added to pre-flipper pins, many operators still felt that they
had no choice (especially if they could not afford to buy many of
the brand new flipper games). This was because flipper games
became so popular with players in such a short period that the
"non-flipper" games almost became obsolete overnight.
In addition to providing the players with a way to use their
personal skill to obtain good scores (and hence replays) when
playing their favorite game, the addition of flippers had another
large benefit to game operators. This was to help them win their
long-fought fight against the anti-gambling forces who for many
years had tried to get pingames outlawed in many localities.
What flippers did for pinball in this regard was to finally
provide an almost irrefutable "skill factor" to the game as
contrasted with the "chance factor" which was always associated
with gambling devices. This became even more important in the
1950's when flipper pinball's "distant cousin" the "bingo pinball"
began to flourish.
For years one of the strong legal arguments used in court by
anti-gambling forces to try and outlaw pingames was to prove that
there was more "chance" than "skill" needed to get a high score and
win something (coins in some cases, but most of the time "replays"
which often could be redeemed for cash). Flippers soon began to
"turn the tables" on that argument.
The next major change in flippers occurred in the early 1950's
when the direction in which the flippers rotated when they were
energized was changed to what it has been ever since.
All the early flipper games had flippers which rotated toward
the opposite side of the playfield from the side on which they were
mounted. In the early 1950's this was changed, and all later games
(including those made today) have flippers which rotate toward the
side of the cabinet nearest that particular flipper. This provided
a better chance (depending on when and where the ball and the
flipper came into contact) to propel a ball to more areas of the
It appears that Gottlieb was the first to arrange their
flippers in this new configuration. The earliest game I can find
to use this flipper configuration was their "turret shooter" (the
ball launched from the bottom center of the playfield from a button
controlled rotating launching device) game JUST 21 which came out
near the beginning of 1950.
With approximately a dozen exceptions (occurring in the early
and mid 1950's), Gottlieb apparently continued using the new
arrangement on all future games.
The other major pingame manufacturer of the time, Williams,
did not appear to be so quick in "reversing" the flipper direction
on their games. They did produce one game with that configuration
in 1950 (a baseball theme pinball called LUCKY INNING), and another
in 1951 (HARVEY). However, it did not appear to be until 1952 that
Williams began using this type of flipper arrangement frequently,
starting with HORSE FEATHERS.
After that, a majority of their games used this new rotation,
but it wasn't until mid 1955 that they abandoned the old rotation
Flippers remained essentially the same size and configuration
(most always two placed near the bottom on the playfield) after
that until the late 1960's or early 1970's. There were a few games
with extra flippers elsewhere on the field, however. At around
that time two differences did come about - although one of those
was only used by Bally.
The most significant of these changes was the increase in the
length of the flipper itself. All of the flippers used up until
that time were essentially the same size as those used on the first
flipper game HUMPTY DUMPTY, which were approximately 2 inches long.
The new long flippers were approximately 3 inches long. (These
lengths include the thickness of the rubber rings surrounding the
As far as conversion to long flippers went, Gottlieb seemed to
be the last company to switch. Williams first used them in mid-
1968 on their game HAYBURNERS II. Then, after making four more
games with short flippers, they used long flippers exclusively
starting in the Spring of 1969 with POST TIME.
Bally first used long flippers in early 1969 on BALLY HOO.
Following that, they apparently used long flippers on all of their
games with the exception of the "Zipper Flipper" games which will
be discussed shortly.
Gottlieb, however, appears to have first used long flippers on
a game called NOW in the Spring of 1971. They next released about
five more short flipper games (such as FOUR SQUARE and DROP-A-CARD)
later in 1971 and in 1972, but went back to long flippers
exclusively around Spring of 1972, starting with SPACE ORBIT.
The other variation to the flipper occurring around that time
was only used on a handful of Bally games from the mid 1960's
through the early 1970's. These were the so-called "Zipper
Zipper flippers was a configuration of the two flippers at the
bottom of the playfield in which, if a certain game function was
accomplished, both flippers would move in line toward each other
such that a ball could not pass between them. This guaranteed that
the ball could be flipped instead of "draining" between the
flippers. This condition, however, only lasted for a short time,
another game action causing the flippers to return to their normal
Bally first used Zipper Flippers on their 1965 pingame BAZAAR.
They then used them on and off for several years, the last such
game being NIP-IT in early 1972. The very popular Bally game
FIREBALL from 1971, incidently, had Zipper Flippers. The total
number of Zipper Flipper games was 17. I don't know whether or not
Bally had this idea patented, but I don't believe any other
manufacturer ever tried to use them.
THE SOLID STATE ERA
When pinballs went from using electro-mechanical circuitry to
solid-state in the late 1970's the flipper still remained electro-
mechanical and did not change much from earlier games, except for
some mechanical improvements made by various manufacturers.
The only entirely new idea in flippers to come out during the
"solid-state era" that I am aware of was the "Switch Flipper"
patented by Alvin Gottlieb (son of D. Gottlieb and Co. founder
David Gottlieb) in late 1990.
At about that time Alvin founded a new pinball company called
Alvin G. and Co. He could not use the name "Gottlieb" in his own
company's name as he had sold the right to use that name on
pingames to Premier Technology who had taken over the old Gottlieb
pinball organization; but that's another story.
Alvin's patent was for a flipper device which itself sensed a
ball coming into contact with it. The main reason for developing
this device was so it could be used on two-player "end-to-end"
games which had two-ended playfields enabling two people to play
while facing each other, one at each end of the game.
The "switch flipper" was used for two purposes. The main use
of it in two-ended games was to switch the game's scoring circuits
so as to credit the proper one of the two competing players with
game scoring he was responsible for.
When a player hit the ball with one of his flippers, the
activation by the ball of the switch on that flipper caused
subsequent scoring to be credited to him until his opponent hit the
ball with one of his flippers. This back and forth scoring made
this two player, two ended, type of game practical. But that
wasn't the only use for this innovative device.
The other purpose for using the "switch flipper" was to allow
these games to also operate in a "single-player mode", with the
flippers on the "unoccupied" end of the game operating themselves
when the players's ball reached them. This was referred to as the
"Auto-Flip Mode". This type of flipper also allowed the game to
"play itself" when not being used and being in the so-called
"Attract Mode" to entice people to play it.
This new flipper configuration was used on Alvin's games A.G.
SOCCER-BALL and U.S.A. FOOTBALL, both of which came out in 1992.
Sometime in early 1994, however, Alvin G. and Co. ceased operation
and I don't believe Alvin's new device has been used since.
When the pinball game first came into being in the early
1930's the player had little control over the ball, other than
gauging his plunger shots and/or shaking the cabinet a little bit.
Several attempts in the early Thirties to allow a player to change
the direction of the ball by manual intervention did not seem to
meet with much success, the idea essentially being abandoned at
It wasn't until late 1947 that this type of thing was again
attempted; this time with resounding success! Ace pinball designer
Harry Mabs, who was working for D. Gottlieb and Co. at the time,
introduced his new "flipper bumpers" on their game HUMPTY DUMPTY.
Within a few months all of the other pingame manufacturers
added "flippers" (as they became simply known) to their games and
they became standard features on all amusement pinballs from then
on. In the years to come more or less minor modifications were
made to flippers, such as their playfield locations, direction of
rotation, and later their physical size.
Another change, Bally's "zipper flippers", was used on a few
Bally games. Lastly, in the early 1990's, Alvin Gottlieb patented
his so-called "switch flipper" for special applications.
The introduction of the flipper to pingames, starting in late
1947, resulted in adding an indisputable "skill factor" to pinball
play. This aided in the pinball industry's long-fought fight
against anti-gambling forces attempting to outlaw the pinball
machine as a gambling device.
Therefore, all things considered, the invention of the flipper
can almost undoubtedly be called the greatest single invention in
the history of this fascinating amusement device - the pinball