TRIBUTE TO A COIN MACHINE GREAT
by Russ Jensen
One of the true pioneers of the coin machine industry, Mr.
Harry E. Williams, has succumbed to cancer at the age of 77.
Harry passed away on Sept. 11, 1983 at his home in Palm Springs,
California. This is certainly a great loss to the world of coin
operated amusement. Mr. Williams was a part of this great
industry for over fifty years, from the late 1920's until the
time of his death.
Mr. Williams was a fine gentleman who loved coin operated
amusement devices. Although he was primarily known in connection
with pinball, he also delved into other coin-op amusement
devices, even into video games in the past year or two. Pete
Bilarczyk, publisher in the mid Seventies of the tabloid "Pinball
Wizzard News", once referred to Harry as "the father of pinball."
This title was not far from the truth when you consider his
achievements in the world of pinball, only a few of which I will
attempt to relate here.
Harry was an inventor! His inventions had a profound effect
on pinball. Late in 1933 he invented the first "electric action"
device to be used on a pinball game. It consisted of a battery
operated electromagnet device which could dislodge a ball from
one hole in the playfield causing it to roll into another higher
scoring hole. This was introduced on a game called CONTACT
manufactured by Pacific Amusement Mfg. Co. of Los Angeles.
Almost immediately "electric action" was included in game after
game by many different manufacturers and, in one form or another,
has been used in pingames up through the present time.
Probably the Williams invention most familiar to pinball
players throughout the years was the "anti-cheating" device
commonly know as "tilt." In its earliest form it consisted of a
small steel ball which, at the start of each new game, was made
to rest on the top of a concave pedestal. If, during the course
of a game, the player shook the cabinet too much the ball would
fall off its pedestal, providing a visual indication that the
player had "cheated." Harry named his first such device "Stool
Pigeon", but soon changed the name to "Tilt.
" A year or so later, when most games had become electric, a
new form of "tilt" was devised in which a metal "plumb bob" would
make electrical contact with a circular metal ring. This contact
(through the use of an electrical "relay") would cause a lighted
sign on the game to light up the word "Tilt." This form of
"tilt" has been used on pingames from the mid Thirties to the
It is interesting to note that not only did Harry's
invention of the "tilt" have an effect on pinball, but also on
our language. Most of us at one time or another have heard that
word used to denote some mildly unpleasant happening or surprize
upset. It has been used in comics, cartoons, and other simple
entertainment devices, and by many in every day conversation.
Even though "Webster" doesn't seem to recognize it as yet, Harry
Williams has unconsciously affected our language.
Although not the inventor himself, Harry played an important
role in the invention of the "free play" pinball. This idea
helped to combat the negative image that pingames were gaining in
the early Thirties as gambling devices. It seems a young man
named Bill Belluh, who worked as a shop assistant to Mr. Williams
in the early years, devised a method by which the attaining of a
high score could result in the player playing additional games
without depositing more coins. These "free games" could take the
place of monetary or merchandise awards then given to many
pinball players as a reward for a high scoring game. Even though
Harry did not directly invent this device, he helped Bill Belluh
perfect it, patent it, and get it installed on games such as
Rockola's FLASH in 1935. Ever since that time "free games" have
been the primary "award" for pinball prowess.
Harry was a designer, not only for his own companies, but
also for others. In the very early Thirties pingames consisted
of a playfield with holes drilled in it for the balls to drop
into for scoring. These games had a large number of "pins"
(nail-like devices protruding from the playfield to deflect the
ball during play), hence the name "pinball." The "art" in
designing these early games consisted primarily in determining
where to strategically locate these pins making it difficult for
a player to obtain too high a score and often "beat the machine."
Harry became quite proficient at this art and designed some
"replacement boards" (new playfields used to convert an existing
game into a "new" one) as well as original games.
Harry also had quite a flair for mechanical design. He
designed many games in the early Thirties, such as ACTION, which
employed ingenious mechanical features. Then, after his
introduction of "electric action" with CONTACT, he began
incorporating electricity into his designs.
In addition to designing games for his own companies (more
about those later) Harry was, over the years, employed as a game
designer with other outfits. Some of his early designs were for
Pacific Amusement of Los Angeles (CONTACT, etc). In 1935 he
accepted an offer from Rockola and went to Chicago to become
their "chief inventor." During his stay at Rockola he met a
young designer, Lyndon (Lyn) Durrant who was to affect his life
for years to come.
After Rockola Harry went to Bally for a short time and again
ran into Lyn. Within six months or so Harry went to Exhibit
Supply and Lyn came along. They both stayed with that company
until World War II broke out. After that Harry was strictly
involved with his own companies until after he "retired" around
Harry was also somewhat active in game design in recent
years. In the late Seventies he designed some "home" pinball
games for the Brunswick Corp. Then, when his old friend and ex-
partner Sam Stern took over the old Chicago Coin Machine Co. and
renamed it Stern Electronics, Harry designed some games for
One of the games he designed, HIGH HAND, contained another
Williams invention, a rotating "flipper like" device which would
move a ball from one "pocket" to another. Recently Harry started
designing video games, including a combination video-pinball game
which he sold to Gottlieb. To my knowledge this game has not yet
been produced. Right up to the end Harry was still designing
Harry believed in all types of amusement devices, anything
that could bring enjoyment to a person. During the Fifties he
made games with something a little different. He made several
amusement pinballs with animated horseraces and many novel "pitch
and bat" baseball games. He also designed "PEPPY THE CLOWN", a
coin operated "marionette theater" in which the player
manipulated the puppet.
Another novel Williams design was a "sidewalk engineer" game
in which the player operated a bulldozer at a construction site.
Harry even had an idea for a coin operated toy train layout which
he tried out but it did not prove too successful. At any rate,
his ideas for amusements were endless.
Harry was a company founder. During his lifetime he founded
three separate companies. In 1934 he started his own company in
Los Angeles called Automatic Amusements where he manufactured
games he designed. In many cases he would make agreements with
larger Chicago manufacturers, such as Bally and Exhibit, to
manufacture his games for distribution in the Middle West and
East, with his company supplying the West. When Harry went to
work in Chicago in 1935 he left his father in charge of his
company which was later disbanded.
Shortly after the start of World War II, Harry and Lyn
Durrant left Exhibit and formed a new company, United
Manufacturing, to repair games at first, but hoping to obtain
Government contracts for war related products. That outfit also
started "converting" old games into "new" ones in addition to
their "war work." Harry sold his share of United to Lyn Durrant
In less than a year, but the company remained a major game
manufacturer up until the mid Fifties.
After leaving United Harry formed still another company,
Williams Manufacturing, which was the forerunner of the current
Williams Electronics. He remained with that company until about
1960 when the company was sold to the Consolidated Drug Co. of
Chicago. That ownership did not last very long and the company
was finally bought by Seeburg in the early Sixties. So, in a
period of less than a decade, Harry founded three game producers,
one of which is still in existence.
As you can plainly see from reviewing the coin machine
industry career of Mr. Harry Williams, he was always a vital,
productive individual. He certainly tried to improve the
amusement machine, which he dearly loved, and to think of new
ways to delight and entertain the American public via the medium
of coin operated devices. This never stopped right up, I am
sure, to the day he died.
Incidentally, an article on the life of Harry Williams was
published in the August 1960 issue of the popular men's magazine
TRUE. It was titled "Ungunchable Harry, King of the Pins" and
was written by J.P. Cahn. This entertaining piece was well
written, in a light hearted style, and told of Harry's life in
the coin machine business from the late 1920's through the
Fifties. While even Harry Williams himself stated that
everything in this article may not have been precisely accurate,
it is a good overview of his fascinating career and highly
Finally, if I may, I would like to end on a personal note.
I had the pleasure of visiting Mr. Williams at his home in Palm
Springs in March of 1978. I had called him on the phone, told
him I was a pinball collector interested in pinball history, and
he invited me to visit. That was probably the most enjoyable
afternoon I have ever spent. Mr. Williams was extremely cordial
and tried his best to answer my questions. It was indeed a
During that visit he told me of a couple, Jim and Candace
Tolbert, who were writing a book on pinball and had contacted him
for information. I contacted them and later on they talked me
into writing a column for a publication they were starting called
Amusement Review. This was the first time I had ever written
anything for publication and I really didn't know if I could do
it, but I did. And here I am still writing about pinball. I
have Harry Williams to thank for my getting into writing and I am
In the years since my visit with Mr. Williams I have talked
to him on the phone on several occasions. Each time he was
extremely friendly and talked freely of his past associations
with the coin machine industry. I learned a lot from him during
these conversations and much of that information has been passed
on through my articles on pinball history.
I cannot easily express the feelings of shock and sadness I
felt upon hearing of this great man's passing. He did so much
for coin operated amusement during his lifetime and I know his
memory will live on. I certainly will never forget the thrill of
my association with Mr. Harry E. Williams, "the father of
pinball" and "king of the pins."