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Default The Evolution Of The Flipper

What do most pinball historians and industry people believe is the single greatest invention in the history of pinball? The answer is the flipper. The primary reason given for this is that the flipper finally introduced a high degree of "skill" to the game.

(AUTHOR'S NOTE: This article was written at the suggestion of French coin-op magazine publisher Yves Erard for his publicationPIJAMA. Due to a one year hiatus in the publication of PIJAMA it will not be published in French until sometime later. I have decided that it should be published in English in COIN SLOT)

Before beginning my story of the flipper I would like to

acknowledge the help of three people in my research for this

article. My good friend and pinball collector/historian, Sam

Harvey (using his vast pinball flyer collection) provided

valuable information regarding the various changes by different

manufacturers of flipper configurations over the years.

Another friend and pinball historian, Rob Hawkins, provided

me with copies of many BILLBOARD magazine ads illustrating the

first flipper games by several manufacturers. And last, but not

least, Steve Kordek (of Williams/Bally/Midway Games) graciously

researched more old BILLBOARD magazines to determine the first

flipper game by United Manufacturing (which incidentally was

manufactured in the very building where Steve currently works).

What do most pinball historians and industry people believe

is the single greatest invention in the history of pinball? The

answer is the flipper. The primary reason given for this is that

the flipper finally introduced a high degree of "skill" to the


This had two results. First, it let the player have more

control over his final score, giving him more enjoyment in

playing. Secondly, it began to end the argument used by many of

the game's detractors that pinball was only a "game of chance"

whose primary use was for gambling.


Before describing this invention, and then its improvements

over the years, I would like to briefly discuss some very early

attempts to give the pinball player some measure of control over

the movement of the ball.

Early in 1932 (the first year of substantial pingame

production) an outfit called Bay City Games in Bay City, Michigan

put out a little game called KOW TOW. This game had no plunger

to propel the ball. Instead the player used a "cue stick"

(similar to that used in the game of Billiards) to propel the

ball onto the playing surface.

KOW TOW was very crude, it not being too far advanced from

pinball's early ancestor the game of Bagatelle. The use of the

cue stick caused it to even more closely simulate that ancestor.

The playfield scoring features were simple pin-guarded holes, but

this was typical of all pingames of the period.

Not long after that game appeared, Rockola (a firm well

known for its juke boxes) introduced a game called JUGGLE BALL.

This game had a player controlled stick device (somewhat similar

to a cue stick) with which the player could influence the ball in

play using a handle protruding from the front of the machine.

JUGGLE BALL was quite a lot more sophisticated than KOW TOW,

having a ball launching device. The playfield, even though only

providing holes (both round and elongated) as scoring objectives,

boasted attractive color artwork.

Even though the two early games mentioned above provided the

player some form of ball control, they could in no way be said to

have anything resembling flippers. There was, however, another

pingame from that same year which could even be broadly

considered to be "the first flipper game".

That game was called DOUBLE SHUFFLE and was released by the

Hercules Novelty Company sometime around the Fall of 1932.

DOUBLE SHUFFLE had seven ball hitting devices on its playfield

(3 on the left side and 4 on the right).

The set on each side of the game was controlled by a

separate player operated lever at the lower end of the playfield.

When either lever was manipulated by the player the set of ball

hitting "flippers" on that side of the field would move in unison

contacting and propelling any balls with which they came into

contact, giving the player a fair degree of control over the ball

in play.

It will be noted shortly that a similar arrangement appeared

on the first electric flipper game some fifteen years later.

DOUBLE SHUFFLE was indeed far ahead of its time. It should also

be noted here that after 1932, up until 1947, no pingames (at

least as far as I am aware) contained any significant player

operated ball control device.


In the year of 1947 at least two pinball manufacturers got

the idea of providing the player some way of manually influencing

the ball in play. In previous years (with the exception of the

few early games previously mentioned) the player had only two

primary methods of "ball control".

The first of these was by his plunger shot (how far he

pulled back the spring-loaded ball shooting device before

releasing it and launching the ball onto the playfield). The

second way was by "gunching" (moving the front of the cabinet

slightly using the palms of the hands). If done at the proper

time, this could have a good influence on the path of the ball,

especially when it came into contact with one of the rubber rings

surrounding many playfields devices such as the bumpers.

Well, around the Fall of 1947 Bally came out with a game

called NUDGY which was designed to simulate "gunching". It had a

playfield with a mechanical device connected to it by which the

player could move the whole playfield backward or forward

slightly by use of a lever on the side of the cabinet.

This game, however, did not seem to catch on with players.

This may have been because the player thought that he could do a

better job of "gunching" on his own without the help of any


Then, late that same year, D. Gottlieb and Company's chief

designer, Mr. Harry Mabs, revolutionized the industry with his

new "flipper bumpers". This new device was really not too

different from the player controlled "bats" which had been used

in the past on coin-operated baseball games.

Mabs' new device was first used on Gottlieb's HUMPTY DUMPTY

which was first advertised in November 1947. This was also the

first in a series of Gottlieb pinballs whose artwork themes were

based on children's fairy tales and nursery rhymes, and which

today are referred to by many pinball collectors as the "Fairy

Tale Series".

The new "flipper bumpers" (as they were called on Gottlieb's

advertisements for the game) consisted of six rubber-ringed

oblong "bats" arranged in two sets of three, each set located on

each side of the playfield. Each group of three was tied

together underneath the playfield by a mechanical linkage bar

which, when moved by current flowing through a solenoid coil,

would rotate the three flippers attached to it through a small

arc, pushing any ball which was in contact (or near) any of the

three flippers on that side of the playfield.

Each of the two solenoid coils were actuated by the player

pressing a button on the side of the cabinet on the appropriate

side of the game. Thus, each set of three flippers could be

operated independently of the other set at the player's

discretion. This was not true on early flipper games by most

other companies as described shortly.

This "three on a side" flipper arrangement made it possible

for a skilful player to cause a ball at the lower end of the

playfield to be flipped to the upper end by subsequently

"batting" it from one flipper to the one above it. This was

somewhat difficult to do, however, since the single coil

operating three flippers at once made for very weak and

"sluggish" flipper action.

The six flipper arrangement of the Gottlieb "Fairy Tail

Series" was not copied by their competitors, but the idea of

using "flippers" certainly was! Following is a brief description

of the first "flipper games" of other pinball manufacturers of

the time.

The first Williams game to use flippers was SUNNY which came

out around January of 1948. SUNNY had four flippers, 2 just

above the center of the playfield and 2 near the bottom. The

bottom flippers, however, were near the sides of the field, not

near the "outhole" as was soon to become a more or less

"standard" location for flippers for years to come.

Another early use of flippers by another major manufacturer

was on Bally's MELODY which came out around February 1948. That

game had two flippers located just above the center of the

playfield; one on each side.

Early flipper games by some other manufacturers (all coming

out around February 194 included Keeney's COVER GIRL (4

flippers - 2 just below the center of the field and 2 above),

Exhibit's BUILD UP (2 just below the center), and Chicago Coin's

BERMUDA (2 just below the center also).

The astute reader probably has observed by now that none of

the early flipper games described above had two flippers in the

extreme lower end of the playfield as they have been on a large

majority of the pingames produced since that time. The credit

for first placing flippers in their "standard location" goes to

Mr. Steve Kordek (who incidentally, helped me with some

information regarding early United flipper games for this

article) and the company he worked for in 1947, Genco


Steve himself has told the story to many people and it goes

something like this: When HUMPTY DUMPTY first came out all the

pinball companies of that time could plainly see that if they

were to "survive" they would have to add flippers to their games.

Well, at Genco their chief game designer Harvey Heiss just

happened to be in the hospital at that time. His junior designer

Steve Kordek was therefore asked by Genco's management to design

a flipper game to show at the annual coin machine show scheduled

in January - not much time at all!

Steve went right to work and designed a game which he called

TRIPLE ACTION. It, of course, had flippers, but not six as on

HUMPTY DUMPTY, or even four - it had only two! Not only that,

but they were located at the lower end of the playfield close to

the area where the ball usually goes into the "out hole".

This was very close to the way flippers were placed for many

years to come, but there still were three differences. First,

they were pointed in the opposite direction. Second, when the

player pressed a flipper button (on either side of the cabinet)

both flippers were activated at the same time.

The final difference was that when a button was pressed the

flippers would flip, but then (due to special game circuitry)

return to their "at rest" position. This "single flip" operation

was also used by some other manufacturers, such as Williams, for

several years to come.

The Gottlieb flippers, on the other hand, always used the

button on each side of the cabinet to only operate the flipper(s)

on that side of the field. And, if a button was pressed, the

corresponding flipper(s) would remain energized until the player

released the button.

The last company to put flippers on their pinballs was

United Manufacturing. Their last game not to have them was

MANHATTAN which was released before March of 1948. United's

first flipper game was apparently WISCONSIN, coming out around

April of that year.

WISCONSIN had two flippers located above the center of the

playfield, one on each side. United's flippers, however, were of

a different construction than those used by other manufacturers.

Each flipper consisted of a metal plate (the bottom of the

flipper) on which was mounted two short metal posts, each with a

groove at the top so a rubber ring could be stretched between


When the flipper was operated, this rubber ring was what

actually hit the ball, causing it to be repelled. As far as I

can determine United never used the standard solid body plastic

flipper used by all other pingame manufacturers. At least

United's strange style flippers were still used on their YUMA

ARIZONA (possibly their last flipper game) which came out in the

Spring of 1950.

Before leaving the early flipper period of the late 1940's,

I believe a couple comments are in order. The first deals with

the kits that were available at that time so that operators could

"upgrade" their now almost obsolete "non-flipper games" to the

latest rage. Long-time coin machine parts supplier WICO (still

active today) was one of the major distributors of those kits.

There was, however, two major problems with operators adding

these kits to pre-flipper pins. The first was that operators

generally had no idea where to locate the flippers on the

playfield. As a result many of these "flipper conversions" had

flippers in a position where they often were of little use to the


Now, if the operator (either accidently or on purpose)

succeeded in locating the flippers where they were useful to the

player, a second problem often resulted. The scoring system of

the unmodified games was based on each ball essentially traveling

in a general downward direction from the top to the bottom of the


When flippers were added, a skillful player could keep the

ball in play longer than he could on the original game by

flipping it back up the field at various times. This could

result in much higher final scores (often near the maximum the

game could register) making the setting of replay-evoking scores

more difficult for the operator.

Even with these problems which were encountered when

flippers were added to pre-flipper pins, many operators still

felt that they had no choice (especially if they could not afford

to buy many of the brand new flipper games). This was because

flipper games became so popular with players in such a short

period that the "non-flipper" games almost became obsolete


In addition to providing the players with a way to use their

personal skill to obtain good scores (and hence replays) when

playing their favorite game, the addition of flippers had another

large benefit to game operators. This was to help them win their

long-fought fight against the anti-gambling forces who for many

years had tried to get pingames outlawed in many localities.

What flippers did for pinball in this regard was to finally

provide an almost irrefutable "skill factor" to the game as

contrasted with the "chance factor" which was always associated

with gambling devices. This became even more important in the

1950's when flipper pinball's "distant cousin" the "bingo

pinball" began to flourish.

For years one of the strong legal arguments used in court by

anti-gambling forces to try and outlaw pingames was to prove that

there was more "chance" than "skill" needed to get a high score

and win something (coins in some cases, but most of the time

"replays" which often could be redeemed for cash). Flippers soon

began to "turn the tables" on that argument.


The next major change in flippers occurred in the early

1950's when the direction in which the flippers rotated when they

were energized was changed to what it has been ever since.

All the early flipper games had flippers which rotated

toward the opposite side of the playfield from the side on which

they were mounted. In the early 1950's this was changed, and all

later games (including those made today) have flippers which

rotate toward the side of the cabinet nearest that particular

flipper. This provided a better chance (depending on when and

where the ball and the flipper came into contact) to propel a

ball to more areas of the playfield.

It appears that Gottlieb was the first to arrange their

flippers in this new configuration. The earliest game I can find

to use this flipper configuration was their "turret shooter"

(the ball launched from the bottom center of the playfield from a

button controlled rotating launching device) game JUST 21 which

came out near the beginning of 1950.

With approximately a dozen exceptions (occurring in the

early and mid 1950's), Gottlieb apparently continued using the

new arrangement on all future games.

The other major pingame manufacturer of the time, Williams,

did not appear to be so quick in "reversing" the flipper

direction on their games. They did produce one game with that

configuration in 1950 (a baseball theme pinball called LUCKY

INNING), and another in 1951 (HARVEY). However, it did not

appear to be until 1952 that Williams began using this type of

flipper arrangement frequently, starting with HORSE FEATHERS.

After that, a majority of their games used this new

rotation, but it wasn't until mid 1955 that they abandoned the

old rotation altogether.

Flippers remained essentially the same size and

configuration (most always two placed near the bottom on the

playfield) after that until the late 1960's or early 1970's.

There were a few games with extra flippers elsewhere on the

field, however. At around that time two differences did come

about - although one of those was only used by Bally.

The most significant of these changes was the increase in

the length of the flipper itself. All of the flippers used up

until that time were essentially the same size as those used on

the first flipper game HUMPTY DUMPTY, which were approximately 2

inches long. The new long flippers were approximately 3 inches

long. (These lengths include the thickness of the rubber rings

surrounding the flipper.)

As far as conversion to long flippers went, Gottlieb seemed

to be the last company to switch. Williams first used them in

mid-1968 on their game HAYBURNERS II. Then, after making four

more games with short flippers, they used long flippers

exclusively starting in the Spring of 1969 with POST TIME.

Bally first used long flippers in early 1969 on BALLY HOO.

Following that, they apparently used long flippers on all of

their games with the exception of the "Zipper Flipper" games

which will be discussed shortly.

Gottlieb, however, appears to have first used long flippers

on a game called NOW in the Spring of 1971. They next released

about five more short flipper games (such as FOUR SQUARE and

DROP-A-CARD) later in 1971 and in 1972, but went back to long

flippers exclusively around Spring of 1972, starting with SPACE


The other variation to the flipper occurring around that

time was only used on a handful of Bally games from the mid

1960's through the early 1970's. These were the so-called

"Zipper Flippers".

Zipper flippers was a configuration of the two flippers at

the bottom of the playfield in which, if a certain game function

was accomplished, both flippers would move in line toward each

other such that a ball could not pass between them. This

guaranteed that the ball could be flipped instead of "draining"

between the flippers. This condition, however, only lasted for a

short time, another game action causing the flippers to return to

their normal position.

Bally first used Zipper Flippers on their 1965 pingame

BAZAAR. They then used them on and off for several years, the

last such game being NIP-IT in early 1972. The very popular

Bally game FIREBALL from 1971, incidently, had Zipper Flippers.

The total number of Zipper Flipper games was 17. I don't know

whether or not Bally had this idea patented, but I don't believe

any other manufacturer ever tried to use them.


When pinballs went from using electro-mechanical circuitry

to solid-state in the late 1970's the flipper still remained

electro-mechanical and did not change much from earlier games,

except for some mechanical improvements made by various


The only entirely new idea in flippers to come out during

the "solid-state era" that I am aware of was the "Switch Flipper"

patented by Alvin Gottlieb (son of D. Gottlieb and Co. founder

David Gottlieb) in late 1990.

At about that time Alvin founded a new pinball company

called Alvin G. and Co. He could not use the name "Gottlieb" in

his own company's name as he had sold the right to use that name

on pingames to Premier Technology who had taken over the old

Gottlieb pinball organization; but that's another story.

Alvin's patent was for a flipper device which itself sensed

a ball coming into contact with it. The main reason for

developing this device was so it could be used on two-player

"end-to-end" games which had two-ended playfields enabling two

people to play while facing each other, one at each end of the


The "switch flipper" was used for two purposes. The main

use of it in two-ended games was to switch the game's scoring

circuits so as to credit the proper one of the two competing

players with game scoring he was responsible for.

When a player hit the ball with one of his flippers, the

activation by the ball of the switch on that flipper caused

subsequent scoring to be credited to him until his opponent hit

the ball with one of his flippers. This back and forth scoring

made this two player, two ended, type of game practical. But

that wasn't the only use for this innovative device.

The other purpose for using the "switch flipper" was to

allow these games to also operate in a "single-player mode", with

the flippers on the "unoccupied" end of the game operating

themselves when the players's ball reached them. This was

referred to as the "Auto-Flip Mode". This type of flipper also

allowed the game to "play itself" when not being used and being

in the so-called "Attract Mode" to entice people to play it.

This new flipper configuration was used on Alvin's games

A.G. SOCCER-BALL and U.S.A. FOOTBALL, both of which came out in

1992. Sometime in early 1994, however, Alvin G. and Co. ceased

operation and I don't believe Alvin's new device has been used



When the pinball game first came into being in the early

1930's the player had little control over the ball, other than

gauging his plunger shots and/or shaking the cabinet a little

bit. Several attempts in the early Thirties to allow a player to

change the direction of the ball by manual intervention did not

seem to meet with much success, the idea essentially being

abandoned at that time.

It wasn't until late 1947 that this type of thing was again

attempted; this time with resounding success! Ace pinball

designer Harry Mabs, who was working for D. Gottlieb and Co. at

the time, introduced his new "flipper bumpers" on their game


Within a few months all of the other pingame manufacturers

added "flippers" (as they became simply known) to their games and

they became standard features on all amusement pinballs from then

on. In the years to come more or less minor modifications were

made to flippers, such as their playfield locations, direction of

rotation, and later their physical size.

Another change, Bally's "zipper flippers", was used on a few

Bally games. Lastly, in the early 1990's, Alvin Gottlieb

patented his so-called "switch flipper" for special applications.

The introduction of the flipper to pingames, starting in

late 1947, resulted in adding an indisputable "skill factor" to

pinball play. This aided in the pinball industry's long-fought

fight against anti-gambling forces attempting to outlaw the

pinball machine as a gambling device.

Therefore, all things considered, the invention of the

flipper can almost undoubtedly be called the greatest single

invention in the history of this fascinating amusement device -

the pinball machine.

Updated Dec 23, 2004 Written by Russ Jensen
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