By Russ Jensen
Ever since I was quite young I have always had a "collecting" hobby of some sort. It seems to be part of my life. While pursuing each of my hobbies I have always had an interest in the "history" of the items I collected. When, as a teenager, I collected old phonograph records, I learned all I could about the history of the phonograph and the various record manufacturers. Even today I still remember such pieces of "phonograph trivia" as who invented the disk record. (in case your curious, it was a gentleman named Emil Berliner - I sure amazed one fellow at work with that piece of information).
When I later collected antique clocks, I learned much about clocks and clockmakers. After that I began collecting player piano rolls. During that period I learned quite a bit about the history of the player piano, "mechanical music" in general, and the myriad of music roll producers. Pinball collecting, of course, was no exception and I became extremely interested in the history of pinball machines and the game manufacturers.
My first bit of pinball history information actually came to me many years before I became an actual collector. As many of you already know, when I was a young teenager I owned several old pingames. Well, after writing to Bally for information about one of these games I started receiving their company newsletter called BALLYWHO. One issue I received commemorated their 20th anniversary and showed pictures of one Bally game for each of those years. This was the first time I realized how the games had "evolved" over the years since the early 1930's.
My real delving into the historical aspects of pinball however began in the early 1970's, after I had started my current pinball collection. While visiting in the home of a fellow pinball enthusiast (soon afterwards to become a game dealer for the home market) I was shown a list of pinball machines and their approximate dates of release compiled by him and a friend of his. This list was fascinating to me as it could be used to "date" most any pingame made between the early 1950's and the current date at that time.
When I asked him if I could have a copy he gave it to me. When I next asked how they gathered all that information he said they used microfilm at the main Los Angeles public library of the entertainment industry trade magazine BILLBOARD, which was used by the amusement game industry as an advertising medium from the early 1930's up until sometime in the 1970's, I believe.
(AUTHOR'S NOTE: "The BILLBOARD" was first established in 1894, primarily as a news and advertising publication for the circus/carnival trade. In the years that followed its coverage widened, and by the 1930's and 1940's covered almost all facets of "entertainment". For example, the September 7, 1947 issue contained sections devoted to: Broadway, Burlesquee, Carnival, Circus, Coin Machines, Fairs-Expositions, General Outdoors, Legitimate Theater, Magic, Music, Night Clubs, Parks-Pools, Radio, Records, Television, and World's Fair, plus a few more sections.
The "Coin Machine" section, at one time or another, covered news and contained advertising for all forms of coin-operated equipment including, pingames, jukeboxes, slot machines, trade stimulators, arcade machines, and vending equipment. BILLBOARD still publishes today, but in recent years has been devoted almost entirely to the music industry.)
Well, that list was fine if you wanted to date a game from the fifties and beyond, but I was also interested in earlier pins since those were the type I had owned and played as a kid. After carefully studying the dates of the games on this list I determined that it was fairly complete from 1952 on, but contained only a smattering of games made before that year. I then decided that I would like to complete the list, at least for games made during the 1940's. So one day I went to the Los Angeles Public Library (armed with pencil and a stack of 3 x 5 file cards) to start my project.
First I had to decide how early in time I wanted to start my "research". Since I knew the earliest game I owned as a kid was Bally's VARIETY, and that it was made sometime in 1939, I decided that would be a good year to start with. Well, BILLBOARD microfilm came in rolls (each with approximately 4 months of weekly issues on it) and the roll which contained January 1939 actually started with November 1938. So that's where I started.
I decided to look at all the pinball ads in each issue and note the first occurrence of an advertisement for each game. Well, at that time I made a decision I later regretted. (True Confession Time!) I reasoned that since the date of first advertisement of a game in BILLBOARD was only an approximate indication of the date of the game's release by the manufacturer, that if I only noted during which "quarter" of the year the ad appeared, that would be "close enough". So I decided to record only the year, and in which "quarter" the game was first advertised, using the notation "A, B, C, and D" to represent the four quarters of a year. Therefore, for example, any games first advertised any time between January and March of 1939 would appear on my list as "39-A".
This microfilm research was a slow process, and it took several visits to the Los Angeles library (approximately 50 miles from my home) to get from November 1938 up to 1948. I then discovered that the UCLA library (a little closer to home) had "hard copies" of BILLBOARD covering 1948 and 1949. This time I took my teenage daughter with me and taught her the process which speeded things up a little. I then made one more trip to the Los Angeles Central Library to finish up through the end of 1951. During this last visit I had made up my mind to list the actual month of each ad and abandon the quarterly (A-B-C-D) idea. I even went back and modified a few "A-B-C-D listings"I had previously done.
At this point I had a stack of file cards, each containing the name of a pingame, its manufacturer, and the approximate date (to the nearest quarter of a year in most cases) of its first advertisement in BILLBOARD. After sorting these cards in alphabetical order (I didn't have a computer in those days) I prepared a typewritten list of the games and that stage of my research was complete.
I failed to mention, however, that in this first BILLBOARD research I skipped the period of World War II, since I knew no new games were manufactured during those years, and I thought it would be too time consuming to look at those issues on microfilm. But I started feeling that my work was really not complete, since there were games "converted" during that period. So one Saturday afternoon, while on a business trip to New York City, I decided to go to the New York public library and tackle the "war years" and their "Wartime Conversion" pingames.
After a phone call to the main library I discovered that the BILLBOARD microfilm was at their Music And Arts Branch located at Lincoln Center. I then went to that location and started again looking at microfilm and recording the "Wartime Conversions" advertised. Since those games were created by one outfit taking pre-war pingames manufactured by another company and modifying them in some way to "convert" them to a "new game", I decided I should list the "new name", the "converting company", and the original name, and that's what I did.
When I started looking at those ads I discovered several things. First I noticed that some of the ads offered to convert old games that an operator owned into the "new game". In those cases the operator would ship his machine to the "converting company" and they would later send him the "new game" and charge a specific fee for that service. Most of the time this was to convert one specific old game into a specific new game, although some ads would indicate a list of several old games, any of which could be converted to the specified new game.
Other outfits just bought specific old games from operators outright, converted them to "new games", then selling these to anyone wishing to buy them. In the case where either the old game from which a conversion was produced was not indicated in the ad, or when the ad gave a list of games which could be used for conversion to the "new game", I made no entry for the "old game" in my list.
After compiling all this information on "Wartime Conversions", and creating a listing of them, I told Roger Sharpe, who was in the process of compiling information for his forthcoming book PINBALL, about it and he asked if he could have a copy of my list. I gave it to him and he used it to create his "Wartime Conversion" list which appeared in that book.
After completing this phase of my research, I combined all the pinball dating information I had obtained from BILLBOARD for the period from November 1938 through the end of 1951 and provided a copy of it to the person who had originally given me the pinball dating list I mentioned earlier.
At that point I thought that was the end of my participation in the "pinball research business", but it was only beginning! While visiting an Orange County pinball operator one evening (who occasionally had old games for sale) I happened to tell him about what I had done with BILLBOARD. As soon as I told him he said to me "I got a call the other day from a fellow who said he was compiling a list of pinballs and their dates of release who, I am sure, would like to get in touch with you". He then gave me this person's name and telephone number.
The fellow's name was Don Mueting, and when I called him he told me that he was trying to compile a list of pingames, including manufacturer's name and approximate date of release, using the lists of games contained in the manufacturer's "parts catalogs". He also told me he was utilizing a device called a "FLEX-O-WRITER" (a form of electric typing device which was controlled by a "punched paper tape" which could be used for "editing" the information to be printed) to prepare his list. When I told him about the list I had originally obtained (which covered 1952 through the early 1970's) and my recently prepared list (covering from late 1938 through 1951) he was really excited. He asked me if I would give him copies of these lists for him to use in preparation of his list. I said "OK" and provided him with copies.
He then set out to prepare the "1st edition" of his list using his FLEX-O-WRITER. When he finished it he sent copies to anyone he knew who was connected with pinball, asking for their corrections and additions. Some time after that he "retired" his FLEX-O-WRITER and put all this pinball data into a computer "database".
A while later I met a fellow named Rob Hawkins who was also very interested in pinball history, in fact he had written his Master's Thesis on the subject. I told Rob about Don and his project and they started working together and eventually prepared their now famous "Pinball Reference Guide" (the current "standard reference" for dating pinball machines) which I, and many other pinball collectors I am sure, carry with me at all times!
My next venture into pinball dating research occurred primarily as a result of my curiosity. Ever since I was a kid, visiting my relatives in Memphis, I was fascinated by the "one-ball horserace" gambling type pingames. After adding one of these machines to my collection, I began to wonder exactly when this game format was originated.
One day, while on a vacation in San Francisco, I decided to pay a visit to that city's main library (which I knew also had BILLBOARD microfilm) and try to find out. I remembered from that issue of BALLYWHO I had when I was a kid (I still own it as a matter of fact) that Bally's PREAKNESS, made in 1936, was the first such game illustrated in that article. I therefore reasoned that the first game of that format had to be made in that year, or in the previous one, so I started looking at BILLBOARD issues from late 1935. Since I was looking at these issues anyway, I decided to list the "first advertisement dates" for all pins I came across, just as I had done in the past for 1939 through 1951.
During that search I discovered that the first game with the "WIN, PLACE, SHOW" format, typical of the "one-ball horserace" games I was familiar with, was Gottlieb's DAILY RACES, first advertised in BILLBOARD in March 1936. This was closely followed by Bally's first game of that type, HIALEAH, which was advertised one month later, some two months before PREAKNESS.
When I got home from my trip, I organized my notes from that BILLBOARD search and prepared a list of pingames advertised between November 1935 and July 1936. I then sent it to Don Mueting for him to use in updating his still growing pinball computer database.
That was not the end of my BILLBOARD research either, although it was several years later when I again started looking at microfilm. A few years ago my friend, and fellow pinball enthusiast, Jack Atkins of Ogden Utah decided he wanted to own the BILLBOARD microfilm from the mid 1930's, because his special area of pinball interest was the "payout" pingames he had played during that period.
I had told Jack that I had previously found out that the New York Public Library sold copies of microfilm for approximately $35 per roll (each roll, as I stated earlier, containing about 4 months of the weekly publication). He bought a used microfilm reader at a very reasonable price and bought most of the BILLBOARD microfilm from the mid Thirties. Shortly after that he found a second film reader and kindly offered to give it to me to aid in my research. He also offered to loan me any of his microfilm I wanted to look at.
Well, if you have been following my story closely up to now, you may have noticed that there was a "gap" in my pinball dating research, that being the period from mid 1936 to November 1938. Therefore, when Jack made me that gracious offer, I decided I would fill that "gap".
When I told Rob Hawkins about my plan of listing the pingame ads in BILLBOARD for that period, he suggested that while I was at it I also make note of the "stories" often appearing in the magazine describing the games as well; something I had previously ignored. I agreed to do that and also decided to not only list the "first advertisement" for a game, but to also make note of later ads for each machine as well.
Having a computer at that time, I set up two "databases" for this research, one for the "advertisements" (including the duplicate ads) and the other for the "stories". When I started looking at the film I made two "passes" through each roll, the first time to record the advertising information in the first database, and again to record the occurrences of the game related stories in the other. After entering all this data into the computer I could then produce two listings for each database, one sorted alphabetically by game, and the other chronologically by the magazine issue date and page number.
The "ad database" included the name, manufacturer, magazine issue and page number for the first advertisement for the game, a one line description of the game's major features, and a short list of date and page number for later ads for the same machine. (see sample "Ad Listing"). The "stories database" included (in addition to the name and manufacturer) the issue date and page number for the story, the title of it, and a one line comment regarding the story's content. (see sample "Story Listing"). As I'm sure you can plainly see, this phase of my research included a lot more detail than my previous attempts. This was due to the fact that I had the luxury of working in my own home, in my spare time, and with a computer sitting right next to my own microfilm reader.
After determining that my local library branch now had a microfilm "reader/printer", capable of making fairly decent "hard copies" of ads and stories at a reasonable price (10 cents per copy), I decided while I had the microfilm on loan I might as well make "prints" of one good ad for each game, plus selected good stories, editorials, etc. Since these copies were made by a "wet process" and, I was told, tended to fade over time, my final step was to make high quality photocopies from the reader/printer copies.
This project took two or three years altogether; my borrowing a couple rolls of film at a time, and performing these tasks in my spare time and in between writing my regular articles for COIN SLOT. When I photocopied these ads and articles I made on copy for myself, one for Hawkins/Mueting (including copies of my computer database listings), and a copy for my "benefactor" Jack Atkins of all the information pertaining to "payout" pingames (which was all he wanted). Many, many thanks Jack for the wonderful film reader and the loan of that great microfilm, and for being so patient with me for taking so long to return it!
By the way, there's one thing I forgot to mention. When searching through the 1938 microfilm I solved two of my long standing "mysteries". These were the dates of release of two games that I owned. One was Exhibit's LIGHTNING (not to be confused with that outfit's 1934 game by the same name which was a special version of Harry Williams' famous CONTACT), which I no longer own, and the other Stoner's ELECTRO. I had guessed by their appearance that both were made in 1938, but I could now confirm it. I discovered that ELECTRO was released around March, with LIGHTNING not coming out until around August.
So now you've heard the story of my pinball dating research, using BILLBOARD magazine as my main information source. Before ending, however, let me say a little about what it was like "looking back into history".
When you start looking at the pages of an old BILLBOARD it is almost like being there at that time. You see each new game when it's first introduced to the trade and how long it remains the "current hit" in the manufacturer's line. In addition to pingames, you also see ads for other coin-op devices (such as jukeboxes, slot machines, and arcade machines) which supplemented pins for the distributors and operators. In my recent 1937/1938 research, for example, I noticed the introduction of the "electric eye" rifle game and the "Skee Ball" roll down game, as well as the latest pins. I also saw today's "classic" slot machines, which you see described in COIN SLOT as valuable collector's items, advertised as just another piece of merchandise at the then current market price.
In addition to the machines, you also see articles about the coin machine industry "personalities" of the time. Articles about their opinions of new machines, or problems within the industry, or sometimes news of their business trips or even vacations. I also saw the obituary for coin machine executive Ted Stoner, whose Stoner Manufacturing Co. produced many fine pingames during the Thirties and up until the war. All in all it makes you feel like you were part of the coin machine industry in those "good old days". Quite a pleasant experience for me indeed!
What about the future, you ask? Well, I really can't say at this time. One of my pet "pin trivia" projects is to determine what was the first pingame to use the term "SPECIAL" to indicate a way of winning replays, in addition to high scores. I found no mention of such a feature in my 1938 research, but my 1940 Genco game, METRO, uses it (or at least "EXTRA SPECIAL"). The first use of the term therefore must have occurred in 1939 or 1940. Well, neither Jack Atkins nor any of the Los Angeles university libraries have any BILLBOARD microfilm for these years, and the main Los Angeles library was destroyed by a fire several years ago and won't be back in operation until the early 1990's, so I don't know when I could complete that little project.
So maybe I'll "cool it" with BILLBOARD for awhile, but you never can tell. Just look at the story I've just related and you can see that this type of thing always seems to recapture my interest, and "where there's a will there's a way". So who knows?
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