EVOLUTION OF THE BUMPER
By Russ Jensen
What has been the most common scoring and action device throughout most of the history of pinball? Without too much thought, especially by people who played pinball during the 30's, 40's, and 50's, the answer would unquestionably be, the bumper. That device has taken on many forms since it was first conceived by a Bally designer of the mid Thirties, but all of its forms had two things in common, a way to score points and a way to add extra action to the ball in play. This article will attempt to describe the evolution of this fascinating device from its inception in the mid Thirties to the electronic pins of today.
The earliest pingames used one, and only one, scoring device, the hole, into which a ball would fall and be counted according to the score value with which it was marked. The only 'action' which these games possessed, other than the ball rolling down the playfield by gravity, was the balls hitting metal pins, with which early playfields were studded, and being deflected slightly by them.
A little later games employing various mechanical devices, such as Rockola's mechanical marvels WORLD SERIES and JIGSAW, added a little more action to the playfield, but not much to the ball itself. Then, as most of you who have been reading my articles should know by now, late in 1933 Harry Williams revolutionized pingame design with the introduction of the electric ball kicker, the forerunner of the modern 'kickout hole'!
While the kickout hole itself did not achieve great popularity until the Forties, Harry's idea of using electric solenoids to provide playfield action did. Many games started to appear with various electric kickers, often referred to as 'cannons' or 'guns' On their playfields. Most of these devices propelled balls horizontally back up the playfield, rather than vertically out of a hole as in Harry's CONTACT. By 1936 these electric action devices were all the rage in amusement pinball games. Payout pins, however, tended not to use much electric action, saving their battery power to operate coin payout mechanisms.
All of a sudden, late in 1936, a second major revolution in pingame design occurred which almost overnight made electric action games virtually obsolete for many years to come.
ENTER THE BUMPER
In December 1936 Bally first advertised their revolutionary new game called BUMPER, which included a new type of scoring device which was to become known 'generically' by the same name. Bally's advertisement for this game heralded it as a "novelty smash hit by Bally" and proclaimed in large letters "no pins, no pockets" which was to set it apart from all previous games which included holes ('pockets') as the primary scoring device, and a playfield studded with 'pins' as ball deflecting devices.
The description of the new game which was included with this ad described the new sensation thusly:
Just pure unadulterated action and suspense! Flip the big steel ball off the plunger -- watch it race to the top of the board -- then bump-- bump-- bump! Down the field it goes -- crashing into giant coil springs, each with the kick of a mule -- staggering drunkenly from one spring to another -- weaving back and forth - - sometimes colliding two or three times with the same spring before skidding away to take a crack at another spring! Every bump registers on light-up totalizer -- awards for both high and low score! Dizzily different! Fatally fascinating! Furiously fast!
This ad dramatically described the new 'action' of BUMPER which was really what made this new concept so exciting to players. A ball traveling down a playfield could literally bounce off of a bumper spring with much more motion than if it were deflected by a simple pin. One early brochure for BUMPER actually contained what was called an "action chart" which showed a sample ball trajectory, illustrating how a typical ball might travel in a game. This bumper 'action' was illustrated in a comical way on the cover of this same brochure which is shown at the start of this article.
A necessary adjunct to the bumper was another new device introduced by Bally on BUMPER. This was the projector "score totalizer" which indicated the player's score in the form of a number projected on a frosted area of the game's backglass. This became a fairly common method of pingame score indication for the next several years, and a method of free-game display for many more years.
This first form of bumper was very simple. It consisted of a coil spring, the top end of which was supported by a metal top mounted on a stud bolted to the playfield. The lower end of the spring was bent straight down and protruded through the center of a carbon ring embedded in the playfield. When the ball hit the spring body of the bumper two things would happen. The springiness of the spring would cause the ball to bounce away from it providing the action, and the movement of the spring caused its lower end to make contact with the carbon ring surrounding it. This acted as an electrical switch, causing the score, indicated by the projection "score totalizer", to be incremented via electrical circuitry.
Bally had really 'scooped' the industry! They had brought out a new scoring device, the bumper, which was to literally change the face of pinball, and they also introduced a simple and reliable score totalizer which was to become one of the two major pinball scorekeeping devices for the next several years.
BUMPERS ALL THE RAGE!
Within a couple of months after the introduction of Bally BUMPER other pingame manufacturers began using this revolutionary device on their games. In March of 1937 half of the new pins advertised in the trade publication Automatic Age featured bumpers. In the April issue only one non-bumper game was advertised. Bumpers were truly fast becoming "all the rage" in the pingame world.
Not only did bumpers start appearing on novelty amusement games such as BUMPER, but the world of one-balls and payout machines quickly jumped on the "bumper bandwagon." Bally themselves quickly followed BUMPER with SKIPPER, a payout version of BUMPER, and CAROM, a one-shot payout with over 20 bumpers, an electric 'kicker', and the popular 'changing odds' feature typical of most payouts of the period.
One-ball payouts with horseracing themes also began appearing with bumpers instead of the usual multi-holed playfield which had become so popular. An example of an early bumper horserace payout was Pacific's ROYAL RACES which came out around March of 1937. A month later that same outfit came out with HEAVYWEIGHT, a bumper one-shot payout with a prizefighting theme.
The introduction of the bumper allowed scoring by 'increments', ie., each strike of a bumper could represent an advance of one scoring 'point'. This lead to the introduction of many new pingames with baseball themes, since each hit of a bumper could by considered as a 'base hit'. During the period of March through May of 1937 at least four baseball bumper pins appeared, Bally BOOSTER, Daval BASEBALL, Gottliet SCOREBOARD, and Genco BATTER UP. Thus the invention of the bumper started a virtual flood of baseball theme pins which was to continue for years to come.
Early novelty bumper pins included Stoner's RICOCHET, which used different colored bumpers to advance lighted horses on the backglass toward a finish line (no payouts however on this 'horsey' game), and Genco's RUNNING WILD, which used bumpers to advance scores indicated by lighted number panels on the backglass. That score indicating method would eventually replace the projector type totalizer, introduced in BUMPER, as the primary means of pingame score indication until the early 1960's.
Gottliet used bumpers and a projector score totalizer (called "flashograph" by them) in May of 1937 on an electric "21" pingame which featured a blackjack theme. At the start of each game lighted numbers on the backglass would indicate the "score to beat." The balls played would advance the points shown by the projector and the player would then try to score enough points to beat the displayed score, presumably without going over 21. As you can plainly see the introduction of bumpers, making possible 'incremental scoring', and the use of score totalizers, made possible all sorts of new ideas in pinball play.
The introduction of bumpers not only brought about many new ideas in pingame design and play features, it also essentially "sounded the death knell" for the once popular ball 'kickers' and 'cannons'. It was not until late 1941 that the ball 'kickout hole', which was first implemented by Harry Williams in 1934, began again to show up on pingames. Harry Williams himself once told me that the primary reason it took so long for the kickout hole to catch on was the extreme popularity of the bumper.
The "spring type" bumper flourished from 1937 through 1940. During this period several variations appeared in size, shape of spring, types of tops, and added lighting. The spring part of many of these bumpers was wound straight down in a cylindrical shape, like in the original bumpers on BUMPER. Others had their springs flared out to a larger diameter near the playfield. That type usually had the lower end of the spring wire formed into a small circular ring, which would encircle a small nail-like post protruding from the playfield. These two metal parts made up the 'electric switch' for this type of bumper, rather than the straight end of the spring protruding through a carbon ring as on BUMPER.
The tops, "caps", of the very early bumpers were made of painted metal, often with a chrome-plated "cap nut" to hold them onto the center post of the bumper unit. Later caps were made of brightly colored plastic, some with numbers painted on them. Spring type bumpers also appeared in various sizes, some quite small (say about 1" in diameter), and others were larger (maybe as large as two inches).
Some of the spring type bumpers were augmented by lights to indicate when the particular bumper would score a larger than normal value. The earliest form of lighting consisted of a bare light bulb, the top of which barely protruded above the playfield, but underneath the coiled spring area of the bumper. Bally's VARIETY in 1939 had a hollow colored plastic tube making up the center post of the bumper unit. A light bulb was placed inside this tube, and when lighted, lit up the entire tube.
OTHER EARLY BUMPERS
During the period between 1937 and 1940 several new variations of bumpers appeared which only lasted for short periods of time (or only on one or two games), but which deserve mention in this history of the bumper. Early in 1939 Exhibit supply came out with a rather attractive form of bumper which they called "wonder star" bumpers.
The tops of these bumpers were shaped like a five-pointed star and could be lit. These bumpers resembled Christmas tree ornaments in a star shape which were popular at that time. Two of these bumpers were used on Exhibit's 1939 game CONTACT. The playfield of Exhibits AVALON, a few months later, was studded with these unique bumpers. They may have been used by Exhibit on another game or two but I am not sure. At any rate this unique bumper, which was very attractive when lit, is quite rare.
Another form of bumper, which was used on several games by both Exhibit and Bally, was the "double disk" type. These bumpers had plastic bodies with a rubber ring around them to provide rebound action to the ball. At the bottom of the bumper was a circular metal plate. or 'skirt', upon which the ball would roll. The movement of this plate would cause it to make contact with a small metal plate at the center of the bumper unit, thus providing the bumper's "electric switch" action. Examples of games using this type of bumper were Exhibit's GOLDEN GATE, REBOUND, and CONQUEST, from late 1939, and Bally's ROLLER DERBY, VOGUE, and WHITE SAILS, also of this period.
A few games were also made which had all metal playfields and bumpers with metal skirts which would make electrical contact with the actual playfield when a ball rolled up on them. This technique was used by Bally on a game called MERCURY in 1937 and by mills novelty on their very popular game "1-2-3". One problem with metal playfields, however, was that the elaborate playfield artwork, used on games of this period, could not be used on them.
A final example of an 'oddball' style bumper is the bell shaped bumpers used by Genco on their 1940 classic METRO. These plastic bumpers were formed in the shape of a bell. These 'caps' were screwed onto a center post in such a manner that a ball hitting the lower part of the plastic bell would cause the center part to rock slightly and cause an electric contact to be made.
Lights placed beneath these bumpers were used to light them, signifying a change in their scoring values. These bumpers were quite attractive, especially when they were lit, and represented another attempt by pingame manufacturers to improve on Bally's original 'spring type' bumpers.
THE MOULDED PLASTIC AGE
By mid 1941 the various types of 'spring bumpers', and the other styles as well, were replaced by a type of bumper which was to reign almost exclusively for almost a decade as the standard form of pinball bumper, and even after that never to die completely.
These bumpers had a moulded plastic body, with a rubber rebound ring around the center, much like the earlier "double disk" bumpers. They had large plastic 'skirts' which, when a ball rolled up on them, would cause a wire, suspended below the playfield from the center of this skirt, to make contact with a small metal or carbon ring which encircled it. This provided the "electric switch" contact for the bumper.
These bumpers almost always contained light bulbs and had plastic caps which were often labeled with a scoring value, often indicating the bumper's value when it was lit, or some letter or number used in some number or letter sequence scoring scheme. While most of these bumpers were round there was a period in the late Forties when diamond shaped plastic bumpers were used on many games.
Until the introduction of the "powered bumper" in 1948, these were the exclusive type of bumpers used on all pingame playfields. And even after 1948 these bumpers were used on many games along with their new "powered" cousins. A variation of this bumper type is even used occasionally on todays solid state pinballs. The later versions of these bumpers had one difference from the early types. Instead of the skirt causing a wire to move and make an electrical contact, the later versions had a plastic rod attached to the center of the skirt and extending below the playfield. This rod would move to one side when a ball rolled onto the skirt and mechanically operate a pair of electric switch contacts.
The final stage in the evolution of the bumper occurred late in 1948. The flipper was less than one year old when a new (well almost) type of bumper made its appearance and gave pinball another shot of "power." This new type of bumper was a "powered bumper" which came to be called by many names such as "Pop Bumper", "Thumper Bumper", and "Power Bumper." This new bumper type had the added feature of actually providing additional power to the ball in play.
In October of 1948 two games were introduced both utilizing powered bumpers, but of a somewhat different construction. Williams' SARATOGA used a modified version of the standard moulded plastic bumper described above, with an added "power ring." This form of powered bumper, which was to become the standard form of powered bumper in the future, had a circular metal ring which was normally held by spring tension in a position just below the top of the bumper unit. This ring sloped slightly downward toward the center of the bumper and had a metal rod attached to it which extended below the playfield. The lower end of this rod was mechanically connected to the plunger of an electric solenoid which, when energized, would pull the ring violently toward the playfield.
When a ball rolled onto the bumper's skirt an electrical contact was closed below the playfield. This contact operated a 'Bumper Control Relay' which controlled two circuits. One provided the scoring function of the bumper while the other operated the solenoid attached to the "power ring." The ring would thus be pulled down violently toward the playfield, suddenly pushing the ball rapidly away from the bumper, thus adding power to the ball's motion.
In that same month Exhibit Supply introduced still another game called CONTACT. This, and the next few games produced by them, utilized a different form of power bumper, which, by the way, had been used once or twice in prewar games, but apparently for some strange reason did not catch on at that time. This was the so called "Exploding Spring Bumper." The action part of this bumper was made of spring wire wound vertically in the form of a slightly flattened sphere. A metal plate on top of this sphere could be pulled downward toward the playfield by a solenoid mounted below the field. When this bumper was struck by a ball this solenoid would be energized, causing the spring sphere to be suddenly squashed resulting in its sides flaring out and pushing the ball away.
Even though these novel bumpers were quite dramatic in their action, they again just did not seem to catch on, and within a few months all amusement pinballs were equipped with powered bumpers similar to those introduced on SARATOGA. In fact, that form of powered bumper is essentially the same in construction as the "thumper bumpers" used today in most solid state pinballs.
There was one other form of bumper which was used for a short time around 1970. It was introduced by Bally and called the "Mushroom Bumper". It was not a powered bumper and only provided scoring. The top of this bumper was shaped somewhat like a mushroom and the ball would push the top up from underneath. This upward movement of the bumper would operate an electrical contact under the playfield to cause points to be registered.
That's the story of the pinball scoring device generically known as the "bumper". It started in a rather simple form with the introduction of the game after which it was named, and after numerous modifications, some small and some not so small, it finally emerged as a combination scoring and action component which is still in use almost fifty years later.
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