It is known by many names, depending on the age of the person you ask. His English name is Pinball, but he was also known as a flipper. In the second half of the 20th century it was one of the most popular arcade machines and coexisted with arcade machines despite being basically a mechanical ingenuity. But in the 1940s it was banned in several cities in the United States, especially New York. What led to this ban?
My first encounter with Pinball was in its digital format through the 3D Pinball Space Cadet that came on the Windows 95 Plus disk ! , a package of themes, cursors and games that complemented Windows 95 . This digital game would become so popular that it would become part of Windows XP . Years later, he would have the opportunity to play Pinball type arcade machines, with their lights and sounds.
For many, the Pinball is called a flipper , for others it is simply the million machine. In short, it has many names but it has been a game that generations of players remember having played, on their computer or in arcades . And it is that in its physical version, Pinball was a recreational machine, like so many others, that worked by inserting a coin.
Curiously, this mechanical game associated with the childhood or youth of many was during a previous time a playful element associated with the adult public. And such was its popularity that it gained a bad reputation and, over time, ended up being banned in certain cities in the United States , the best known, New York . What led these cities to ban an apparently innocent game like Pinball?
Origin and evolution of Pinball
The electromechanical parlor game that many of us have known under the name Pinball , with mechanical elements and some electronics, was not always like this . We no longer enter its digital versions, we are left with the physical game in which two buttons activate two paddles or flippers that must hit the metal ball so that it bounces against plastic or mechanical elements distributed everywhere.
In principle, the direct ancestor of Pinball was called Bagatelle and, as its name indicates, it came from France. Temporarily located in the 18th century, it consisted of a horizontal board with holes and obstacles. Each hole had a score. The objective of the game, that the ball enters the hole with the best possible score. Although variations of the same board, in its origins it was closely related to billiards , since colored balls were used that had to be hit with a billiard stick.
Other versions were operated by hands, in the style of petanque and the most sophisticated used a metal spring piece in the style of modern Pinballs. And although the first versions were made of wood, over time they were decorated with various motifs, such as football.
Be that as it may, in the mid-19th century, the European Bagatelle was modernized in the United States by adding metal nails and being renamed Pinball . But it was not until the 30s of the 20th century when more typical elements of Pinball that we know were introduced, such as a glass partition, hidden mechanisms against which the ball hit, electromagnets, etc.
Like Bagatelle , Pinball was a game associated with bars and pubs, places only allowed for men. In addition, to play you had to enter a coin, and in addition to the personal prize of lasting as long as possible, the Pinballs of the 30s and 40s of the 20th century incorporated cash prizes when a certain score was reached. Come on, like the slot machines or slot machines that proliferated in pubs and casinos all over the world.
The popularity of Pinball in this type of slot machine was such that in large cities in the United States, game rooms proliferated where there were mostly Pinball machines with adult players. And when something becomes very popular, it draws the attention of everyone, including the authorities.
Pearl Harbor and the great ban
On January 21, 1942 , ballroom play known as Pinball was banned in New York . Any of these board games had to be requisitioned by the authorities, basically the police. So bars, bowling alleys, arcades and even candy stores stopped having Pinball in their catalog of recreational items.
The person responsible for this drastic measure was the mayor of New York at the time, Fiorello LaGuardia . In his own words, the Pinball industry was enriched by the money that schoolchildren received to buy lunch. Specifically, the nickels known as nickels in English referring to the material of which they were made, although actually it was 25% nickel and 75% copper. Pinball machines were even nicknamed contemptuously nickel thieves by their detractors.
As if that was not enough, protecting children, came World War II, or more specifically, the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. This historic event served as a trigger for the United States to become permanently involved in the World war, seen from a distance until then.
Thus, as in any warfare, the United States needed all the possible help in the form of weapons and other elements of war, such as aircraft or ships. For this, it was essential to have the maximum of basic materials such as copper, aluminum, or nickel present in Pinball machines.
The Mayor of New York already had two powerful reasons to end Pinball: the pockets of children and the need to support the United States in the warfare by providing materials that were being wasted in arcade machines .
To make matters worse, Mayor LaGuardia was not alone in his crusade. Since the Great Depression in the 1930s, which is when Pinball machines began to proliferate, this recreational game was more associated with the world of betting than with the recreational game. Mainly because there was a prize involved, either cash or other objects of a certain value.
And since these types of machines could be found in places reserved for adults but also for all audiences, such as grocery stores or candy stores, sooner rather than later religious and educational groups became concerned about the damage it could cause in childhood, a movement similar to that made possible by the Volstead law of the 1920s, better known as the Dry Law and which was in force from 1920 to 1933.
As if all this were not enough, to the bad reputation of Pinball had to be added its alleged relationship with organized crime . And it is that many of these machines or arcades were controlled or associated with the mafia of those 30s and 40s.
The end of the ban
As I said in the previous section, in January 1942 a hunt was started against Pinball machines that were everywhere. The best known ban is that of New York , but cities like Chicago , Milwaukee , New Orleans or Los Angeles also decided to ban Pinball. Interestingly, other cities like Washington DC simply chose to prohibit access to Pinball by minors during school hours.
Thus, it became a clandestine object and persecuted to the point that Pinball machines were destroyed with large clubs in front of the press or thrown into the Hudson River or the East River , in the case of New York, as an image of the hard fight of the City council against this pernicious entertainment.
The persecution continued for more than 30 years. The own John Fidzgerald Kennedy took the fight against gambling, Pinball and organized crime to gain political capital from the hand of his brother Robert, Attorney General during the Kennedy administration (1961-1963).
But let’s go back to the present. If you travel to New York you may find more than one Pinball is one of the entertainment venues in this great city. There’s even the Modern Pinball NYC, an interactive museum that doubles as a place of entertainment where you can have fun with some of its many Pinball specimens. Some as old as those set in The Munsters or The Beatles and others more modern like the one whose theme is Game of Thrones or Guardians of the Galaxy.
What happened? What could have changed in the mentality of society and the American authorities so that Pinball returned to legality? The first change was the introduction of the flipper , that is, the paddles we use to hit the ball and lengthen the game for hours. It was invented in 1947 and was a great change in Pinball, since instead of just watching the ball fall , you could control it yourself by hitting it with the paddles or flippers . This made Pinball more of a reflex game than a betting machine.
But the change did not come until the 1970s . At that time, Pinball was no longer the betting machine and cash prizes of the 30s and 40s. Now it is a recreational game with catchy lights and melodies that continues to work introducing a coin but whose purpose is to achieve the highest score possible.
Hence, the California Supreme Court decided on June 22, 1974 that Pinball is a game of skill and not one of chance, thus repealing the ban in the city of Los Angeles . The case is known as Cossack against the City of Los Angeles , and it was that it was Roger Cossack , among others, who asked to cancel the 1939 ban in Los Angeles due to the changes that Pinball had undergone, especially thanks to the introduction of the flippers .
For its part, New York joined the legalization of Pinball in 1976, two years later. Your argument in favor? The crisis in which he found himself and in which Pinball machines could cope with the bad times that hotels, cinemas, bars and leisure establishments in general were experiencing. Other cities soon joined, thus ending a ban of more than 30 years .