America’s Iconic Pinball Manufacturers Past & Present
Founded in 1927 by David Gottlieb in Chicago, Illinois, the company initially produced pinball machines and later expanded into various other games including pitch-and-bats, bowling games and video arcade games. Gottlieb manufactured the first successful coin-operated pinball machine, Baffle Ball, in 1930. In 1947, Bally released Humpty Dumpty, the first game to feature player-activated 2-inch bats called “flippers,” which revolutionized the industry by allowing players to shoot the ball back up the play field and accumulate more points. By the 1970s the company had adopted Williams Electronics’ longer 3” flippers, which are now the industry standard.
Gottlieb was sold in 1976 and after a series of acquisitions and short-lived name changes, pinball machines continued to be sold under its name until 1996, when declining demand forced the company to close. Their final pinball machine was Barb Wire.
The Bally Manufacturing Corp. was founded by Raymond Moloney in 1932, when Bally’s original parent established the company to make pinball games. The company, based in Chicago, took its name from its first flipper-less game, Ballyhoo, and quickly became a leading maker of pinball machines. Bally also had great success making gambling equipment and even branched out into vending machines and the music business.
The company floundered briefly after Ray passed away in 1958 but was turned around by a group of investors. Bally went on to acquire amusement game company, Midway Manufacturing, in the late 1960s.
In 1975 Bally was the first company to officially license a theme. The game was Wizard! and was based on the Tommy movie by The Who. It wasn't long before the other companies followed suit.
A decade later Bally ventured into the casino business when New Jersey legalized gambling in Atlantic City. At the same time the company entered the growing market for home computer games. Rapid expansion into these and other businesses took its toll on the company’s finances, forcing Bally to scale back its operations. Bally sold its pinball division, along with Midway, to Williams Electronics in 1988.
Harry E. Williams founded Williams Manufacturing Company in Chicago, Illinois in 1943 in the midst of World War II when a lack of raw materials made the manufacture of new machines difficult and expensive. A Stanford engineering graduate, Harry designed the first electrical pinball machine and devised the “tilt” mechanism, which ended the ball in play when players shook the machine too hard or lifted the front of the machine in order to roll the ball backward. In 1947 he took on successful pinball operator and distributor, Sam Stern, as a business partner. Ten years later the company was acquired by a jukebox manufacturer and became known as Williams Electronics Manufacturing. In 1973 the company branched out into arcade video games, eventually creating a number of classics. In 1987 the name changed yet again to WMS Industries.
Early Williams pinball machines often included innovative features and pinball firsts, such as mechanical reel scoring and the “add-a-ball” feature for locations that didn't allow game replays. By the early 1990s, advances in computing allowed pinball machines to get even more complex. The Addams Family, produced and licensed in 1992 based on the 1991 movie, featured plenty of next generation features and is considered by many to be the era’s most iconic game. It sold more than 20,000 units, making it the best-selling pinball game of all time. Despite its success, WMS Industries closed its pinball division in 1999 to focus on slot machine development.
Based in Elk Grove Village, Illinois, the company traces its lineage to the 1930s and the founding of modern pinball. Sam Stern, the father of Stern Pinball Inc.’s founder, Gary Stern, was part owner and president of pinball pioneer, Williams Electronics. Gary entered the business as a teenager in the 1960s when he started working in the stock room at Williams. In 1977 Gary and his father bought financially troubled Chicago Coin, a manufacturer of pinball tables, and formed Stern Electronics, Inc., manufacturing arcade video games and pinball machines until 1985. After the death of his father a year later, Gary founded Data East Pinball, which was then purchased by Sega and became Sega Pinball. In 1999 Gary bought the business back from Sega and renamed it Stern Pinball, Inc.. Ten years later Stern Pinball partnered with a private equity investment firm to help it weather the Great Recession.
For more than a decade Stern was the only major pinball developer and manufacturer in existence. To ensure its survival and bring in a built-in customer base, all of its games are based on licensed themes — from bands such as Aerosmith, Metallica, AC/DC and The Beatles to iconic movie franchises like Star Wars and Star Trek. Stern produces approximately three new titles a year.
Founded by Jack Guarnieri in 2011, this Lakewood, New Jersey-based manufacturer is known for its high-end, groundbreaking pinball machines. Guarnieri, a veteran amusement industry figure, started out fixing pinball machines part time on college campuses in 1975. He became a sought-after repairman and successful operator before launching an on-line pinball resale business in 2000. But with Stern being the only major pinball company still in existence, there was little inventory for Guarnieri to sell. That’s when he decided to create his own pinball machines.
It took more than two years of development for Jersey Jack to release its first game, Wizard of Oz, in 2013. Combining conventional pinball with today’s technology, the game featured many industry innovations, including a 26” LCD widescreen monitor that displays full color, cinema-grade animations. Although games are typically based on popular movies — Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and Pirates of the Caribbean, for example — Dialed In is a completely original game and the first pinball machine to feature Bluetooth connectivity and a camera.