It was a low-cost entertainment, so it became the perfect alternative during the Great Depression, which many turned to to escape from reality.
We could say that it is the prelude to the Internet, the place where digital childhood took shape. There everything was dark and colorful at the same time: neon lights everywhere, the sound of dozens of machines beeping and playing some electric ditty, balls, discs, boys and girls with their eyes inserted in the game. The screens were still minimal, but they were emulated with glass. The balls became very small, they were no longer on the floor, they went into drawers through which moving them was a challenge.
What could be more fun than a pinball machine for the kids of the seventies, eighties and nineties? That normality was once not very normal, and that game (those games) that were taking us away from the street were once “of the street” in the most derogatory sense of that expression. Shortly before they came into our lives, they swarmed through the United States, their country of origin, through the underworld and the mafia. We are in the 1930s, and pinball is not a kid’s game. Its history is the history of marginalization against the working classes and the encirclement of the authorities towards so many marginalized people. For pinball to be born it first had to die. But that happened with the attack on Pearl Harbor, so let’s take it one step at a time.
To understand the trajectory of this curious game we must actually go back to France. We are now in the 18th century: the last glorious years of the aristocracy, who spent their lives playing croquet. Until they got tired of waiting for it to stop raining so they could continue playing. Thus, the wealthy French came up with the idea of a game called Bagatelle.
The aristocratic origins of the game
It was nothing more than a wooden board with obstacles through which a ball had to be rolled in order to get it into one of the holes carved in the wood. A number was assigned to each hole, and the player earned points according to the hole in which the ball was inserted. It would also be the most obvious “ancestor” of the pinball machine. From the first moment it was a great success, so much so that French soldiers took it with them to the United States during the American Revolution at the end of the century. Once there, on the other side of the Atlantic, the Bagatelle would become popular among all social classes and strata of society. It was the inventor Montague Redgrave, a native of the State of Ohio, who would take that centenary game and make a few tweaks to it: the first pinball game was born, although still without this name. Redgrave was granted a U.S. patent for his “improvements”. He had added a coil spring, a slope and smaller marbles. It was now called “Parlor Table Bagatelle”.
The new version of the game quickly became popular in bars across the country. People gathered around it as they did with a pool table, but here it was all about the scores. The more points, the more pride you took home; and, if you were lucky, you even got a free drink. That’s how the first two decades of the new 20th century went.
Depression, poverty and alcohol
In 1930, everything changed. With the so-called Depression, anything that meant an escape from reality was taken almost as a miracle. Anything, moreover, was good to get away for a while from the poverty that plagued society. Alcohol and gambling became a prime necessity, of course, and therefore also the target of the authorities. The pinball machine was low-cost entertainment, so many turned to it inside bars to forget what was going on outside. The first automatic machine of this type actually dates back to 1931.
The matter, in the eyes of the authorities, worsened especially when Bally began to manufacture machines that charged on winning, which was in conflict with the gambling laws of the American country at the time.
In the face of need, i.e., demand, the business in supply became evident. Karen Harris notes in an article for History Daily that “1931 was an exceptional year for pinball”: Raymond Maloney developed a coin-operated mechanical pinball game called “Bally Hoo”. The game was so well received that, that same year, Maloney founded Bally Company. Meanwhile, another company, Bingo Novelty Games, commissioned D. Gottlieb & Company to manufacture its own version, called Baffle Ball. That board lent itself to anything, and by the end of the decade, the first machines with luminescent fields that marked the score appeared. Little lights seemed to have the power that the government couldn’t find. It was a kind of collective psychedelia (with alcohol always on the sly, which reinforced the experience of the game).
The issue, in the face of the authorities, worsened especially when Bally’s began to manufacture machines that charged on winning. These adjustments were in conflict with the strict gambling laws of the North American country at the time. Effectively, pinball machines were eventually banned. They were outlawed from the early 1940s until 1976, no less: the police would look for them, and if they found them, they would beat the crap out of them. They would even pile them up in the street to break them in a symbolic act in the eyes of the people. In this way they wanted to impose their power, but of course they did not succeed. As Eric Grundhauser notes in Atlas Obscura, “they saw this game as resonating, buzzing, jumping, and pounding as both a moral and economic stain on America’s proud culture.”
Three decades underground
From underground, the machines continued to thrive. For every mazaso, three or four or five were being made. At that time, players still had to hit and tilt the machine to get the ball to change direction. We can hardly imagine a machine without flippers to facilitate these movements, but they didn’t arrive until 1947. Pinball was already banned, associated with the mafia and, yes, seen as a dangerous distraction for children. This war on pinball was largely initiated by Fiorello LaGuardia, mayor of New York City, as historian Rosemary Giles explains in an article for The Vintage News. LaGuardia “was elected as part of a platform that promised to end corruption and crime, in particular by striking back against the Mafia.
He made it a personal mission to ‘get the bums out of town.’ To that end, his first target was slot machines, many of which were controlled by notorious mob boss Frank Costello.” The strategy, at first, proved optimal for the elites, as with it LaGuardia managed to drive out thousands of marginalized people, people living on the street, controlled by crime and delinquency where Costello always had a hand in it. “His next target was pinball machines being manufactured in Chicago, another city filled with organized crime. LaGuardia claimed that this game “picked the pockets of young people in the form of nickels and dimes that were given to them as lunch money.”
The attack on Pearl Harbor
On this occasion, and despite his earlier success, LaGuardia took a little longer to get the ban because of what he called “morality issues.” It was not until after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 that his speech took hold. The attack was a great rhetorical hook, and LaGuardia drew on newfound positivity toward the conflict to argue that pinball machines were not only a waste of time, but a waste of important materials that should be used for war.
LaGuardia’s message resonated and police raids became constant. In just three weeks, some 3,000 pinball machines were seized, producing more than 4,000 kilograms of metal for military weapons.
It was now literally a matter of patriotism. That “the metal from these evil contraptions should be made into weapons and bullets that can be used to destroy our foreign enemies,” said the mayor. The message resonated, of course, and police raids became constant. In just three weeks, Giles notes, agents were able to collect approximately 3,000 gaming machines that produced more than 4,000 kilograms of metal for military weaponry.
As Michael Schiess, executive director of the Pacific Pinball Museum in Alameda, California, and collector of pinball machines since 2001, explains to Grundhauser, since that time other places such as Chicago, Oakland and even California followed the model implemented in New York and created laws to prohibit or limit the use of these machines. The new legal restrictions, however, only succeeded in nullifying the use of those machines and configured their purpose so that you could not “win” per se, but rather compete for the opportunity of an additional game.
The end of their prohibition
This is how the matter remained until 1976. In this regard, we are left with great cultural references to attest to this: when The Who’s rock opera Tommy was released in 1972, pinball was still illegal in most American cities, so the main character was presented as “a maverick and rebellious outlaw, despite his disabilities,” Harris writes. Similarly, when the sitcom Happy Days debuted, the show’s rebellious bad boy, The Fonz, was featured playing pinball in the opening credits, “probably to establish him as the tough guy on the edge of the law.” These are not the only ones, as subtle references to pinball and youthful rebellion became commonplace in TV shows and movies of the 1950s, ’60s and early ’70s.
One fine day, one Roger Sharpe had to testify in court about the open war on pinball. He was not just any man. He was very close to that demonized machine as a professional player. Sharpe was well known for his skill with the ball, winning time and time again, and that had given him a position as notable as it was dangerous. In his defense, he claimed that it had become a game of skill rather than a game of chance, as it was originally understood. He demonstrated this by playing a game in the courtroom itself, predicting the exact movement of the ball before shooting. His performance convinced the courtroom that pinball was actually a harmless game of skill.
Melissa Galbraith is the World News reporter for Globe Live Media. She covers all the major events happening around the World. From Europe to Americas, from Asia to Antarctica, Melissa covers it all. Never miss another Major World Event by bookmarking her author page right here.
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