Pinball can trace its origins back to the 19th century game of Bagatelle, which became popular with American servicemen deployed in Europe. The game was primitive, compared to modern machines with no electronics and little to no mechanical features. Players hit balls with a cue stick and attemped to nudge 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 machines 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 machines.
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.
After hitting peak popularity in the early 1990s, interest in pinball began to decline, with Capcom and Gottlieb shuttering their doors in the mid- to late 1990s, and ultimately with the shuttering of the pinball division at Bally/Williams.
Pinball has experienced yet another resurgence in popularity, with a strong collectors' market, as well as new venues for pinball opening up across the United States and the rest of the world. Competitive pinball has also enjoyed a resurgence, with over 100 leagues regularly meeting across the world, and membership rising from just 500 active players worldwide in 2006 to over 27,000 active players worldwide in late 2014.
There are currently several companies currently producing commercial pinball machines.
Stern Pinball, Inc. (formerly Stern Electronics, Inc.) weathered the crash of the late 1990s and early 2000s, for a time existing as the only producer of pinball machines. Stern primarily focuses upon licensed properties, including The Walking Dead, AC/DC, Metallica, Lord of the Rings, Spider-Man, and Star Trek. Their machines are generally offered in several versions, from pared-down pro versions designed for location play, to premium and LE editions aimed at the collector market.
Jersey Jack Pinball entered the market in 2011, and released their first machine, The Wizard of Oz, in 2013. The company is currently working on The Hobbit to coincide with the release of the third film, and an as-of-yet unnamed Pat Lawlor project.
Dutch Pinball is currently building an upgrade kit to the Williams System 11 classic Bride of Pinbot, which will overhaul the game with new rules that provide diversified strategy, new music and speech, and a dot-matrix display. The are also producing The Big Lebowski Pinball, currently in prototype, utilizing licensing from Universal and Brunswick.
Heighway Pinball, based in the UK, is releasing Full Throttle, which features an interactive display built into the playfield.
Riot Pinball is in the prototype phase of Wrath of Olympus.
Spooky Pinball has released their first pinball, America's Most Haunted, and will be manufacturing Wrath of Olympus.
Planetary Pinball, through a manufacturing contract with Stern, is in production on a remake of the classic Williams pinball, Medieval Madness, with remakes of Attack from Mars and Monster Bash on the horizon.
American Pinball are accepting preorders for their first pinball table, Houdini: Master of Mystery.
Whizbang Pinball has entered into an agreement with Stern to manufacture their first game Whoa Nellie! Big Juicy Melons!
Quetzal Pinball has just released their first game, Captain Nemo.
Multimorphic is currently prototyping several new games based upon their modular platform.
Skit-B pinball was releasing Predator. However in March 2015 the project was canceled after complications with the IP's license.
Zidware is currently designing two games, Magic Girl, and Retro Atomic Zombie Adventureland. After a messy production, rumored mishandling of customer deposits, and two third party companies stepping in to save the projects, the first game from Zidware, Magic Girl, was shipped to disappointed buyers as it was clear that the machines were still unfinished.