PINBALL RESEARCH BY RUSS JENSEN*
Ever since I was quite young I have always had a
"collecting" hobby of some sort. It seems to be part of my life.
While pursuing each of my hobbies I have always had an interest
in the "history" of the items I collected. When, as a teenager,
I collected old phonograph records, I learned all I could about
the history of the phonograph and the various record
manufacturers. Even today I still remember such pieces of
"phonograph trivia" as who invented the disk record. (in case
your curious, it was a gentleman named Emil Berliner - I sure
amazed one fellow at work with that piece of information).
When I later collected antique clocks, I learned much about
clocks and clockmakers. After that I began collecting player
piano rolls. During that period I learned quite a bit about the
history of the player piano, "mechanical music" in general, and
the myriad of music roll producers. Pinball collecting, of
course, was no exception and I became extremely interested in the
history of pinball machines and the game manufacturers.
My first bit of pinball history information actually came to
me many years before I became an actual collector. As many of
you already know, when I was a young teenager I owned several old
pingames. Well, after writing to Bally for information about one
of these games I started receiving their company newsletter
called BALLYWHO. One issue I received commemorated their 20th
anniversary and showed pictures of one Bally game for each of
those years. This was the first time I realized how the games
had "evolved" over the years since the early 1930's.
My real delving into the historical aspects of pinball
however began in the early 1970's, after I had started my current
pinball collection. While visiting in the home of a fellow
pinball enthusiast (soon afterwards to become a game dealer for
the home market) I was shown a list of pinball machines and their
approximate dates of release compiled by him and a friend of his.
This list was fascinating to me as it could be used to "date"
most any pingame made between the early 1950's and the current
date at that time.
When I asked him if I could have a copy he gave it to me.
When I next asked how they gathered all that information he said
they used microfilm at the main Los Angeles public library of the
entertainment industry trade magazine BILLBOARD, which was used
by the amusement game industry as an advertising medium from the
early 1930's up until sometime in the 1970's, I believe.
(AUTHOR'S NOTE: "The BILLBOARD" was first established in
1894, primarily as a news and advertising publication for the
circus/carnival trade. In the years that followed it's coverage
widened, and by the 1930's and 1940's covered almost all facets
of "entertainment". For example, the September 7, 1947 issue
contained sections devoted to: Broadway, Burlesquee, Carnival,
Circus, Coin Machines, Fairs-Expositions, General Outdoors,
Legitimate Theater, Magic, Music, Night Clubs, Parks-Pools,
Radio, Records, Television, and World's Fair, plus a few more
The "Coin Machine" section, at one time or another, covered
news and contained advertising for all forms of coin-operated
equipment including, pingames, jukeboxes, slot machines, trade
stimulators, arcade machines, and vending equipment. BILLBOARD
still publishes today, but in recent years has been devoted
almost entirely to the music industry.)
Well, that list was fine if you wanted to date a game from
the fifties and beyond, but I was also interested in earlier pins
since those were the type I had owned and played as a kid. After
carefully studying the dates of the games on this list I
determined that it was fairly complete from 1952 on, but
contained only a smattering of games made before that year. I
then decided that I would like to complete the list, at least for
games made during the 1940's. So one day I went to the Los
Angeles Public Library (armed with pencil and a stack of 3 x 5
file cards) to start my project.
First I had to decide how early in time I wanted to start my
"research". Since I knew the earliest game I owned as a kid was
Bally's VARIETY, and that it was made sometime in 1939, I decided
that would be a good year to start with. Well, BILLBOARD
microfilm came in rolls (each with approximately 4 months of
weekly issues on it) and the roll which contained January 1939
actually started with November 1938. So that's where I started.
I decided to look at all the pinball ads in each issue and
note the first occurrence of an advertisement for each game.
Well, at that time I made a decision I later regretted. (True
Confession Time!) I reasoned that since the date of first
advertisement of a game in BILLBOARD was only an approximate
indication of the date of the game's release by the manufacturer,
that if I only noted during which "quarter" of the year the ad
appeared, that would be "close enough". So I decided to record
only the year, and in which "quarter" the game was first
advertised, using the notation "A, B, C, and D" to represent the
four quarters of a year. Therefore, for example, any games first
advertised any time between January and March of 1939 would
appear on my list as "39-A".
This microfilm research was a slow process, and it took
several visits to the Los Angeles library (approximately 50 miles
from my home) to get from November 1938 up to 1948. I then
discovered that the UCLA library (a little closer to home) had
"hard copies" of BILLBOARD covering 1948 and 1949. This time I
took my teenage daughter with me and taught her the process which
speeded things up a little. I then made one more trip to the Los
Angeles Central Library to finish up through the end of 1951.
During this last visit I had made up my mind to list the actual
month of each ad and abandon the quarterly (A-B-C-D) idea. I
even went back and modified a few "A-B-C-D listings" I had
At this point I had a stack of file cards, each containing
the name of a pingame, it's manufacturer, and the approximate
date (to the nearest quarter of a year in most cases) of it's
first advertisement in BILLBOARD. After sorting these cards in
alphabetical order (I didn't have a computer in those days) I
prepared a typewritten list of the games and that stage of my
research was complete.
I failed to mention, however, that in this first BILLBOARD
research I skipped the period of World War II, since I knew no
new games were manufactured during those years, and I thought it
would be too time consuming to look at those issues on microfilm.
But I started feeling that my work was really not complete, since
there were games "converted" during that period. So one Saturday
afternoon, while on a business trip to New York City, I decided
to go to the New York public library and tackle the "war years"
and their "Wartime Conversion" pingames.
After a phone call to the main library I discovered that the
BILLBOARD microfilm was at their Music And Arts Branch located at
Lincoln Center. I then went to that location and started again
looking at microfilm and recording the "Wartime Conversions"
advertised. Since those games were created by one outfit taking
pre-war pingames manufactured by another company and modifying
them in some way to "convert" them to a "new game", I decided I
should list the "new name", the "converting company", and the
original name, and that's what I did.
When I started looking at those ads I discovered several
things. First I noticed that some of the ads offered to convert
old games that an operator owned into the "new game". In those
cases the operator would ship his machine to the "converting
company" and they would later send him the "new game" and charge
a specific fee for that service. Most of the time this was to
convert one specific old game into a specific new game, although
some ads would indicate a list of several old games, any of which
could be converted to the specified new game.
Other outfits just bought specific old games from operators
outright, converted them to "new games", then selling these to
anyone wishing to buy them. In the case where either the old
game from which a conversion was produced was not indicated in
the ad, or when the ad gave a list of games which could be used
for conversion to the "new game", I made no entry for the "old
game" in my list.
After compiling all this information on "Wartime
Conversions", and creating a listing of them, I told Roger
Sharpe, who was in the process of compiling information for his
forthcoming book PINBALL, about it and he asked if he could have
a copy of my list. I gave it to him and he used it to create his
"Wartime Conversion" list which appeared in that book.
After completing this phase of my research, I combined all
the pinball dating information I had obtained from BILLBOARD for
the period from November 1938 through the end of 1951 and
provided a copy of it to the person who had originally given me
the pinball dating list I mentioned earlier.
At that point I thought that was the end of my participation
in the "pinball research business", but it was only beginning!
While visiting an Orange County pinball operator one evening (who
occasionally had old games for sale) I happened to tell him about
what I had done with BILLBOARD. As soon as I told him he said to
me "I got a call the other day from a fellow who said he was
compiling a list of pinballs and their dates of release who, I am
sure, would like to get in touch with you". He then gave me this
person's name and telephone number.
The fellow's name was Don Mueting, and when I called him he
told me that he was trying to compile a list of pingames,
including manufacturer's name and approximate date of release,
using the lists of games contained in the manufacturer's "parts
catalogs". He also told me he was utilizing a device called a
"FLEX-O-WRITER" (a form of electric typing device which was
controlled by a "punched paper tape" which could be used for
"editing" the information to be printed) to prepare his list.
When I told him about the list I had originally obtained (which
covered 1952 through the early 1970's) and my recently prepared
list (covering from late 1938 through 1951) he was really
excited. He asked me if I would give him copies of these lists
for him to use in preparation of his list. I said "OK" and
provided him with copies.
He then set out to prepare the "1st edition" of his list
using his FLEX-O-WRITER. When he finished it he sent copies to
anyone he knew who was connected with pinball, asking for their
corrections and additions. Some time after that he "retired" his
FLEX-O-WRITER and put all this pinball data into a computer
A while later I met a fellow named Rob Hawkins who was also
very interested in pinball history, in fact he had written his
Master's Thesis on the subject. I told Rob about Don and his
project and they started working together and eventually prepared
their now famous "Pinball Reference Guide" (the current "standard
reference" for dating pinball machines) which I, and many other
pinball collectors I am sure, carry with me at all times!
My next venture into pinball dating research occurred
primarily as a result of my curiosity. Ever since I was a kid,
visiting my relatives in Memphis, I was fascinated by the "one-
ball horserace" gambling type pingames. After adding one of
these machines to my collection, I began to wonder exactly when
this game format was originated.
One day, while on a vacation in San Francisco, I decided to
pay a visit to that city's main library (which I knew also had
BILLBOARD microfilm) and try to find out. I remembered from that
issue of BALLYWHO I had when I was a kid (I still own it as a
matter of fact) that Bally's PREAKNESS, made in 1936, was the
first such game illustrated in that article. I therefore
reasoned that the first game of that format had to be made in
that year, or in the previous one, so I started looking at
BILLBOARD issues from late 1935. Since I was looking at these
issues anyway, I decided to list the "first advertisement dates"
for all pins I came across, just as I had done in the past for
1939 through 1951.
During that search I discovered that the first game with the
"WIN, PLACE, SHOW" format, typical of the "one-ball horserace"
games I was familiar with, was Gottlieb's DAILY RACES, first
advertised in BILLBOARD in March 1936. This was closely followed
by Bally's first game of that type, HIALEAH, which was advertised
one month later, some two months before PREAKNESS.
When I got home from my trip, I organized my notes from that
BILLBOARD search and prepared a list of pingames advertised
between November 1935 and July 1936. I then sent it to Don
Mueting for him to use in updating his still growing pinball
That was not the end of my BILLBOARD research either,
although it was several years later when I again started looking
at microfilm. A few years ago my friend, and fellow pinball
enthusiast, Jack Atkins of Ogden Utah decided he wanted to own
the BILLBOARD microfilm from the mid 1930's, because his special
area of pinball interest was the "payout" pingames he had played
during that period.
I had told Jack that I had previously found out that the New
York Public Library sold copies of microfilm for approximately
$35 per roll (each roll, as I stated earlier, containing about 4
months of the weekly publication). He bought a used microfilm
reader at a very reasonable price and bought most of the
BILLBOARD microfilm from the mid Thirties. Shortly after that he
found a second film reader and kindly offered to give it to me to
aid in my research. He also offered to loan me any of his
microfilm I wanted to look at.
Well, if you have been following my story closely up to now,
you may have noticed that there was a "gap" in my pinball dating
research, that being the period from mid 1936 to November 1938.
Therefore, when Jack made me that gracious offer, I decided I
would fill that "gap".
When I told Rob Hawkins about my plan of listing the pingame
ads in BILLBOARD for that period, he suggested that while I was
at it I also make note of the "stories" often appearing in the
magazine describing the games as well; something I had previously
ignored. I agreed to do that and also decided to not only list
the "first advertisement" for a game, but to also make note of
later ads for each machine as well.
Having a computer at that time, I set up two "databases" for
this research, one for the "advertisements" (including the
duplicate ads) and the other for the "stories". When I started
looking at the film I made two "passes" through each roll, the
first time to record the advertising information in the first
database, and again to record the occurrences of the game related
stories in the other. After entering all this data into the
computer I could then produce two listings for each database, one
sorted alphabetically by game, and the other chronologically by
the magazine issue date and page number.
The "ad database" included the name, manufacturer, magazine
issue and page number for the first advertisement for the game, a
one line description of the game's major features, and a short
list of date and page number for later ads for the same machine.
(see sample "Ad Listing"). The "stories database" included (in
addition to the name and manufacturer) the issue date and page
number for the story, the title of it, and a one line comment
regarding the story's content. (see sample "Story Listing"). As
I'm sure you can plainly see, this phase of my research included
a lot more detail than my previous attempts. This was due to the
fact that I had the luxury of working in my own home, in my spare
time, and with a computer sitting right next to my own microfilm
After determining that my local library branch now had a
microfilm "reader/printer", capable of making fairly decent "hard
copies" of ads and stories at a reasonable price (10 cents per
copy), I decided while I had the microfilm on loan I might as
well make "prints" of one good ad for each game, plus selected
good stories, editorials, etc. Since these copies were made by a
"wet process" and, I was told, tended to fade over time, my final
step was to make high quality photocopies from the reader/printer
This project took two or three years altogether; my
borrowing a couple rolls of film at a time, and performing these
tasks in my spare time and in between writing my regular articles
for COIN SLOT. When I photocopied these ads and articles I made
on copy for myself, one for Hawkins/Mueting (including copies of
my computer database listings), and a copy for my "benefactor"
Jack Atkins of all the information pertaining to "payout"
pingames (which was all he wanted). Many, many thanks Jack for
the wonderful film reader and the loan of that great microfilm,
and for being so patient with me for taking so long to return it!
By the way, there's one thing I forgot to mention. When
searching through the 1938 microfilm I solved two of my long
standing "mysteries". These were the dates of release of two
games that I owned. One was Exhibit's LIGHTNING (not to be
confused with that outfit's 1934 game by the same name which was
a special version of Harry Williams' famous CONTACT), which I no
longer own, and the other Stoner's ELECTRO. I had guessed by
their appearance that both were made in 1938, but I could now
confirm it. I discovered that ELECTRO was released around March,
with LIGHTNING not coming out until around August.
So now you've heard the story of my pinball dating research,
using BILLBOARD magazine as my main information source. Before
ending, however, let me say a little about what it was like
"looking back into history".
When you start looking at the pages of an old BILLBOARD it
is almost like being there at that time. You see each new game
when it's first introduced to the trade and how long it remains
the "current hit" in the manufacturer's line. In addition to
pingames, you also see ads for other coin-op devices (such as
jukeboxes, slot machines, and arcade machines) which supplemented
pins for the distributors and operators. In my recent 1937/1938
research, for example, I noticed the introduction of the
"electric eye" rifle game and the "Skee Ball" roll down game, as
well as the latest pins. I also saw today's "classic" slot
machines, which you see described in COIN SLOT as valuable
collector's items, advertised as just another piece of
merchandise at the then current market price.
In addition to the machines, you also see articles about the
coin machine industry "personalities" of the time. Articles
about their opinions of new machines, or problems within the
industry, or sometimes news of their business trips or even
vacations. I also saw the obituary for coin machine executive
Ted Stoner, whose Stoner Manufacturing Co. produced many fine
pingames during the Thirties and up until the war. All in all it
makes you feel like you were part of the coin machine industry in
those "good old days". Quite a pleasant experience for me
What about the future, you ask? Well, I really can't say at
this time. One of my pet "pin trivia" projects is to determine
what was the first pingame to use the term "SPECIAL" to indicate
a way of winning replays, in addition to high scores. I found no
mention of such a feature in my 1938 research, but my 1940 Genco
game, METRO, uses it (or at least "EXTRA SPECIAL"). The first
use of the term therefore must have occurred in 1939 or 1940.
Well, neither Jack Atkins nor any of the Los Angeles university
libraries have any BILLBOARD microfilm for these years, and the
main Los Angeles library was destroyed by a fire several years
ago and won't be back in operation until the early 1990's, so I
don't know when I could complete that little project.
So maybe I'll "cool it" with BILLBOARD for awhile, but you
never can tell. Just look at the story I've just related and you
can see that this type of thing always seems to recapture my
interest, and "where there's a will there's a way". So who