There was a time when the pinball machine seemed headed towards extinction, its bings and boops fading to a plinky whisper in the collective unconscious. The pinball manufacturing industry, once booming in cities like Chicago where it all began, have whittled down to two in the entire U.S.
Nevertheless, pinball has hit a resurgence as arcades and barcades pop up in trendy areas, and games are still produced, often based on the latest movie or TV show.
There’s a great history in pinball. So much so that The Who wrote an entire rock opera about it. Tommy centers around a young man who can't see, hear, or speak, but, as the song suggests, he played a mean pinball.
That history includes innovation after innovation, and a long stretch from the 1940s to the 1970s where the machines were considered gambling , making them illegal in most large cities. Thanks to that prohibition, they became an icon of teenage rebellion.
And now it’s not uncommon to find reasonably-priced pinball machines at estate sales. Whether it’s from the estate of a lifelong, avid collector, or someone who just happened to have one in their den, they spring up from time to time. And they’re hard to resist. Just think—YOU could be the next “someone who just happened to have a pinball machine in their den,” also known as "the coolest house on the block." How amazing would that be?
Maybe you’re on the hunt for a very specific game. Perhaps 1991’s The Shadow, with a young Alec Baldwin staring at you dreamily from the backbox, or the handsome (albeit a little less so, as it lacks a young Alec Baldwin) Black Hole from 1981. But if your experience with pinball is limited to a few fun-filled summer afternoons at TILT after your mom dropped off at the mall, desperate for a break from her lovable but moody teenage children, you should do some planning before showing up on the first day of a sale with a pickup truck and a dream.
Of course, having both those things is good, but you should be armed with information as well, so things don’t get out of hand. Be sure you’re prepared to trasport your machine home, and to care for it when it malfunctions. Which it will, eventually.
The style of game you wish to own, is, of course, completely up to you. Older machines may be a bit simpler mechanically, but just like your increasingly weird uncle Fergus, they can get quirky with age. When it comes to machines, as they get older, repairs will be needed. How down and dirty are you ready to get?
Pinball machines can be divided into two eras, according to Tim Arnold, curator of the Pinball Hall of Fame in Las Vegas, Nevada, the country’s largest not-for-profit pinball museum. There’s the “mechanical era,” which includes all machines built before 1978, “where the numbers flipped over, like the gas pumps and the rotary dial telephones,” he said. After 1978, “everything was run on circuit boards.”
So before 1978, pinball tables were primarily electro-mechanical games. After 1978, games were referred to as “solid state,” controlled by microprocessors, and featuring digital displays instead of traditional scoring reels. By the 1990s, solid state games expanded to include dot matrix displays for scoring and low-resolution videos.
“There’s a lot more of the newer circuit board style games than there are of the older, mechanical games,” Arnold said. “And each one has its own challenges.”
Know your strengths
No matter which type of game you have your eye on, you should make sure you’re able to deal with those challenges. Machines will occasionally malfunction. Do you have a repairman nearby? Are you willing to tackle these issues yourself?
“Try to hook into the pinball collector underground in your area,” Arnold said. “There’s a lot of people who can help you. You can trade with them, they can give you advice, they can come over to your house and do repairs.”
Arnold recommends sites like Mr. Pinball and Pinside, both of which have collector registries, searchable by location.
Sites like Pinwiki and Pinrepair, Arnold said, are beneficial for those who wish to handle repairs themselves. The Pinball Hall of Fame does 95 percent of their repairs in-house, but Arnold still finds those sites helpful after more than 40 years in the business. “It saves me a lot of time to be able to go on an online library and get the information without having to go through my mind for hours, trying to relearn the circuit,” he said.
So you’ve done it. You’ve decided the style of game you want. Perhaps you found a 1992 Addams Family table using the EstateSales.NET Treasure Tracker. Lucky you! Now, consider your logistics.
First consider size and space, both in getting your machine home, and in setting it up once you get there. Pinball tables can range in size, of course, but the standard is almost 3 feet wide, more than 4 feet long, and over 6 feet tall. And they tend to be 200-300 pounds. You need to make sure you have the clearance and the manpower to get it where you want it.
Don’t hesitate to call the estate sale company and ask them if they can give you the dimensions ahead of time. This could also be an opportunity to learn a little bit more about the machine's owner, and how they stored and maintained their tables, which can give a good indication of how the inner-workings may be holding up.
Move it, move it
The tables can be disassembled for safe travel. How it comes apart depends on the game, of course, but there are some basic guidelines. Electro-mechanical and early solid-state games , for example, usually have their headboxes bolted on. Remove them completely for transport, and pack them up safely. For EM games, the headbox will have a rear access panel, which will give you access to the plugs and bolts. Early solid state games may require you to remove the glass in order to access the proper plugs and bolts. In either case, pay attention to how you unplug the system, so you can easily reassemble it.
Later solid-state games have foldable headboards. Be sure to provide some cushioning between the folded pieces, so they don't rub together.
In all cases the legs, too, will probably need to be removed.
The balls, too, should be removed before transport, to avoid damaging the landscape of the game.
Enjoy responsibly...or not
This may go without saying, but remember for the sake of any loved ones that live with you: those games are noisy. So if you're going to put it in say, a bedroom-adjacent room in your house, start summoning the rebellious teenage attitude you surely had back in the day, so you can properly sneer and roll your eyes when someone eventually complains about the noise.
Or, you know, put it in a less intrusive room. But where's the fun in that?