Eighty years without flippers

by James Somers, August 22, 2009

According to the excellent short documentary, Tilt: The Battle to Save Pinball, 1947 was about the biggest year in the game’s history. Why? Because that’s when they introduced flippers:

STEVE KORDEK (PINBALL DESIGNER 1948-1999): There were a lot of other things that happened earlier, like lights and sound effects, picking up the ball out of holes, and then of course at that time, the introduction of the tilt, which Harry Williams was responsible for. But, the biggest change in the entire industry was the introduction of the flippers. Because it made all other games that were manufactured before then obsolete. Absolutely obsolete.

NARRATOR: For nearly eighty years, the game of pinball consisted entirely of pulling back a plunger and watching a ball fall into a hole. With the addition of flippers, pinball changed from a game of luck into a game of skill.

This is about as absurd to me as the fact that basketball, in its very early days, was played with an intact peach basket, and each time a player scored, someone had to climb up some stairs to retrieve the ball. I’m not sure how long this went on before they decided to cut out the bottom, but god help us if it was more than a few minutes.

Of course it’s worth asking whether there are peach-basket bottoms that we have yet to cut—cases where we are, so to speak, still playing pinball without flippers.

I can conjure up a few candidates:

  1. We use two different machines to do our laundry. Even if there were some principled reason to separate washers and dryers (and I doubt that; cf. the dishwasher), the least we could do is invent a trap door, pulley system, or robotic arm to get the clothes from one to the other.
  2. This is not an insight of mine, but it bears repeating: the fact that we now use computers mostly to share media will in time look hopelessly primitive. So will the fact that most of today’s code is written manually by human programmers.
  3. There are no longer technical barriers to digitizing the full text of every book and making it easily (if not freely) available. Yet I still sometimes have to ruffle through hundreds of pages to find an old excerpt or annotation, and I can do that only if I have a copy of the book nearby.
  4. We clean up after going “number two” by taking several passes back there with a loosely constructed mitten of thin, dry paper, which we then inspect for poopiness as a way of knowing when to stop.

Can you think of any others?