Pinball players today have what seems to be a big choice among machines produced by the "Big Four" --Bally, Gottlieb, Stern, Williams-and flippers from Atari, Allied Leisure, and a handful of domestic and foreign manufacturers.


Today's choice, however, pales in comparison to the variety of enticement offered players 50 years ago. In 1935, for instance, there were close to 200 different models produced by some 30 different manufacturers!


(Note: the figures given in this article refer to the number of different models produced, not the production run of each game.)


Since the beginning of pinball in about 1932, some 200 or so companies have made some sort of pinball game. A majority of these outfits (160 or so) made less than five different models and about 120 machines companies made only one game. Another 20 companies made less than 20 different machines. The remaining 13 companies made 20 or more different models. In addition to the "Big Four," the only other companies to make over 100 models of pinball machines were Exhibit Supply and Genco Manufacturing.


Gottlieb tops the list for the most models produced with over 450. Bally is second with over 375; then Williams with somewhere over 300. (It is interesting to note that even though Williams started up in 1944, they came a close second to Bally which was founded way back in 1932.) In fourth place is Chicago Coin/Stern with about 150 models. In fifth and sixth places respectively are Genco (with approximately 125) and Exhibit (with over 100).


The approximate number of pinball models produced by other manufacturers who made more than 20 models each (and the years during which each was producing pins) include: United (1~42-1957) 80; Keeney (1332-1964) 60; Stoner (1933-1941) 50; Rockola (1932-1938) 40; Daval (1934-1939) 35, Mills (1932-1942) 30, and Jennings (1932-1938) 20. With the exception of United and Keeney, none of these manufacturers made any pinball after World War II.


The number of different pinball models which have been produced since 1931 will be surprising to many people. A soon-to-be published list notes somewhere in the neighborhood of 2,400 different models! Again, the greatest year for different pins was 1935 when some 30 manufacturers made close to 200 models. The first year of significant pinball production was 1932 when everybody and his brother were making the incredible new game--about 180 models were introduced by about 60 different companies. In 1936 some 30 companies produced about 150 different models.


Just prior to the start of World War II there were seven major manufacturers of pinballs. Shortly after the war started the government decreed that no more materials or parts could be used in the manufacture of non-essential items such as pinball games. At that time all of these companies ceased pinball production and turned to "war work." Of the seven companies, all but one, Stoner, eventually returned to making games after the war.


During the war no completely new games were produced but the demand was at least partially satisfied by a few companies' "wartime conversions. Shortly after the start of the war, pinball pioneer Harry Williams and ace circuit designer Lyn Durant formed United Manufacturing and soon began converting old pinballs. They utilized the electrical parts and cabinets from used games, supplying new playfields, backglass artwork, and names.


United produced 13 different conversions during the war. By 1344 Harry had left United and formed his own Williams Manufacturing Company (forerunner of the present Williams Electronics). The Williams company produced two pinball conversion models and several other types of amusement machines. After the war Williams began producing new pinball machines as did the prewar pinball manufacturers.


Post-war production then began in earnest. The major companies producing pinballs just after the end of the war were Bally, Chicago Coin, Exhibit, Genco, Gottlieb, United and Williams. Another company, Marvel, which made some conversions during the war, also produced a few new machines through 1948.


During the 1950s the number of new models produced declined each year~ and reached an all-time low in 1959 with only about 25 different models being produced that year. One of the reasons for this decline was the switch by several of the major manufacturers to other types of amusement machines. Chicago Coin and J.H. Keeney Co. (which had resumed pinball production in 1947) primarily produced bowling machines in the fifties. Genco and Exhibit switched to gun games and other arcade pieces. During this period both Bally and United made bowling machines and multiple coin "bingo" pinballs (which will discussed in a future column) almost exclusively. This left production of flipper pinballs during the fifties almost exclusively to Gottlieb and Williams, each producing from nine to 16 new models each year.


In 1963 Bally started concentrating more on flipper pinballs. Chicago Coin put out two to four models each year during the rest of the sixties. So during the sixties, and the seventies for that matter, the "big four" were the only significant U.S. producers of pinball machines in great contrast to earlier periods.