The first type of all pinball machines are acknowledged to be the 19th century "Bagatelle-Table", cross between a "pin table" and pool table. Players hit balls with a cue stick and tried get them into pockets or slots surrounded by nails or pins. Later in the 19th century inventor Montague Redgrave patented a device called a ball shooter which was similar to today pinball mechanism for releasing the ball, this which was based on the at the time recently invented steel spring.
These tables were first popular in bars and cafes in Europe and America, players first exchanged money for balls to play with, then if players obtained a high enough score, they would be awarded free drinks, meals and or cigarettes. Soon after came the introduction of the first coin-operated Bagatelle pin tables.
1930s - 1950s
The first coin-operated pinball machine was introduced in 1931 by Automatic Industries and was called "Whiffle Board". Although the gaming industry really picked up in the mid 1930's with the production of a game called Ballyhoo. It was invented by one Raymond Maloney, who later started the Bally Manufacturing Company of Chicago, IL.
The pinball machines of this era where mainly constructed of wood with wooden legs and wooden rails on the sides of the machine.
It is thought the term pinball came into play at this time due to the fact that all the machines at this time had holes and pins in them. In 1933, electricity was introduced to pinball machines by adding a battery to the machine and in 1934, the first automatic scoring mechanism would appear in the form of a "clock" counter, as well as the first sounds in a pinball machine by way of electro-mechanical chimes, bells and buzzers. The popularity of the pinball machine rose dramatically during the mid to late 1930's in part due to the depression era and the need for low-cost entertainment for the masses.
Since many pinball operators in the 1930's gave away prizes based on the high scores achieved, some players tried to cheat by shaking and lifting the game, so in 1935, the tilt mechanism was invented by Harry Williams, founder of the famous Williams Manufacturing Company, this mechanism determined how hard the table was tilted or shook to stop players trying to control the game to their advantage. Modern day pinball machines employ two such tilt devices, one that measures the movement of the game side to side, and another called the slam tilt that is used to movement up and down and prevents such acts as slamming your hand into the machine or trying to lift and drop the machine.
1950s - 1990s
Pinball machines grew in popularity after World War II. The ten year period of 1948-58 is referred to by some as the Golden Age of pinball, due to the invention of flippers in 1947 by the D. Gottlieb Co. in a game called " Humpty Dumpty", and was one of the main reasons for the renewed interest in pinballs at the time.
In 1948, a firm called Genco placed one set of flippers at the very bottom of the playfield in a machine called " Triple Action" - But the setup was still a little unusual by today's standards; the flippers were facing outwards, not inwards like today's models.
The first game that had a modern flipper arrangement was the Spot Bowler, a 1950's D. Gottlieb Co. machine. It was not until the mid 70's that most pinball machines adopted the longer 3 inch flippers we play with on today's modern machines.
It was also in the mid 70's that solid-state electronic pinball machines were first introduced, starting yet another huge wave of public popularity due to new games innovations, features, Game reliability and cool design features like electronic scoring, alphanumeric scoring, electronic sounds and finally electronic speech, which lasted well into the late 80's.
The late 80's saw Williams and Bally merge to become the main pinball manufacturers in the market, and in the 90's they both produced some of the most amazing pinball machines concepts ever dreamed of like Medieval Madness, Cirqus Voltaire, Twilight Zone, Theatre Of Magic, Monster Bash, Scared Stiff, Tales Of The Arabian Nights and the most popular pinball machine in modern history, Addams Family (with over 20,000 produced), along with many other modern-day collectible classics, and finally the last pinball machines of the golden era of pinball manufacturers, Cactus Canyon and the Pinball 2000 machines, which combined video movies over standard pinball action.
There are currently two companies still producing commercial pinball machines.
One company still making pinball machines is Stern Pinball, Inc. (formerly Stern Electronics, Inc.). To date, Stern has made only licensed games, including Spider-man (based off the movie trilogy), 24, CSI, Shrek, The Lord of The Rings (based off the trilogy), and NBA. In addition to making pinball machines they also host pinball tournaments where prizes can be won. Prizes can be anywhere from money to a brand new Stern Pinball machine.
The other company is Jersey Jack Pinball. The first machine developed and distributed by Jersey Jack Pinball was The Wizard of Oz.