THE SCIENCE OF PINBALL: An Introduction by Eric J. Kos
The Pacific Pinball Museum has dedicated itself to using pinball as an avenue of discovery in the field of science. As young people discover the scientific forces behind the game of pinball they just might catch that spark that inspires the next Albert Einstein, Nikola Tesla or Isaac Newton. Pinball machines quite clearly demonstrate certain scientific principles and can easily teach about: simple machines, the laws of physics, the properties of basic materials, electricity and electronics.
Simple machines consist of inclined planes, pulleys, levers, wedges, screws and wheels with axles. Each of these machines gave humans the earliest labor-saving devices. With pinball machines designed to be fully automated, these machines were rapidly adapted to pinball-related purposes, simplifying set up and maintenance for both players and operators. The lever performs many functions in a pinball machine. The player uses the only tool accessible: a lever called the flipper. Below the playfield, the linkage moving the flipper uses the lever while the mechanics behind the flipper button switch also rely on the lever. Inclined planes create ramps. Wedges drive the ball away from pop bumpers. Wheels with axles run every motor in a machine and help rotating circles of plastic keep your score. Pulleys run features like the cars in Flying Turns or the Ferris wheel in Hurricane. The screw holds it all together. Combined, they create complex machines and hence, electrified, the pinball machine.
Certainly the laws of physics apply to the basic operations of a pinball machine. Principles of force, mass, acceleration, gravity, friction and all the combined teachings of Newton appear here on the playfields of games like Dolly Parton, Slick Chick or AC/DC. Objects in motion tend to stay in motion, well that's for sure. The angle of incidence is equal to the angle of reflection, especially when there's rubber involved. Every action produces an equal and opposite reaction appears quite commonly on the playfield, with the usual reaction being a drain. Gravitational and electromagnetic forces play out in multiple ways both above and below the playfield.
Certainly a player discovers the properties of various materials when working with pinball. Metal, plastic, wood and rubber each yield before the might of the steel pinball. In time, everything breaks down after enough bashing by flipped balls. Watch as techs rebuild wood with toothpicks or replace broken plastic guides with more abuse-resistant metal. See rubber discolor, degrade, harden, encrust, disintegrate or melt. Try to discover the reason behind the mysterious green electrolytic goo that oozes from old electronic circuitry. Certain materials work with others in certain ways: rubber protects metal, metal must work carefully around plastic, but drives right into wood. Indeed pinball can teach about the materials that make up the very world around you.
Electricity, once considered a new-fangled, dangerous invention, has taken over or simplified many tasks for humans. In a pinball machine, electricity serves hundreds of purposes. From light bulbs to stepper units from electromagnetic coils to electronic circuitry, electricity is the force behind much of pinball. The mighty switch turns the flow of electrons hither and yon, and if they should reach a certain point, well, things start to happen. Electrons can't reach the flipper button until the game's turned on with a switch that opens the flood gate from the wall. Before you can play, the electricity waits behind a switch in the coin door. Indeed, once you've paid for your game, the electrons can't power the electromagnetic coil that drives the flipper until your switch behind the flipper button lets them through. The switches hold the power at bay so it may do the bidding of players and operators alike.
Pinball has always kept up with technology and the history of pinball can be compared parallel to the progress of electromechanical and electronic technology of the 20th Century. Building on the complex machines of the 19th Century, pins quickly adapted electric wiring and switches to power devices and light scores or the way to fun in dark pool halls and bars. Increasingly complex relays, stepper units and the like showed and increasing acceptance of the possibilities of electricity. Designers relied on switches throughout their games to decide more and more complex features. Mercury switches gave way to leaf switches and eventually electronic optical switches. Developments like the flipper left many game producers behind. Companies who were slow to adapt to changes in the industry did not survive. Gottlieb led with the first flipper in the late 1940s only to die when they refused to accept solid state electronics in their games in the late 1970s. Bally would surge to the fore on the back of circuit boards, transistors, capacitors and other electronics all sent along their golden pathways in a far more compact space than their electromechanical predecessors.
In the 21st Century, pinball continues to innovate. Stern Pinball installs MP3 files of scores of recordings from movies and offers downloadable updates for their games' software. Electronics can be reprogrammed to create new modes and sequences. Opto switches use laser technology. Jersey Jack's been putting full color LCD screens into his Wizard of Oz games. As technology continues to advance, the pinball industry will likely continue its tradition of innovation, only time will tell.
Check out the Pacific Pinball Museum's unique spin on the science behind pinball. Our exhibit building know-how has created several unique interactive exhibits and custom pinball machines.
Play the Visible Pinball Machine exclusively at the Pacific Pinball Museum. The visible pinball series by Michael Schiess with help from Wade Krause and Christian Schiess are truly the crown jewels of the Pacific Pinball Museum collection. Currently three games are available on free play at PPM. The games offer a unique opportunity to view the inner workings of a pinball game while it's in play. These games are as much fun to watch and study as they are to play! See more on the visible pinball series below.
The Pinbowl Chaos Generator examines how a number of variables affects chaotic behavior. The number of balls (variables) introduced into the bowl l(equation) produces different outcome. Besides the math, the pinbowl has four bumpers, red, green and blue neon rings that light when a ball triggers the matching colored bumper. The total effect is a continuous cacophony of light, sound and motion as the balls interact with each other and their environment.
Bill Nye, the Science Guy plays a game on the museum's first Visible Pinball Machine at a past Maker Faire.
Bill Nye with Museum Founder and Executive Director Michael Schiess in front of Michael's first clear pinball.
Today there are three models of the Visible Pinball Machine shown here as they prepared for their big unveiling at the Pacific Pinball Exposition.
The Visible Electromechanical "Freedom" a translucent copy of the 1976 Bally original.
The same machine as built in 1978 as a Solid State "Freedom" the world's first successful computer-controlled pinball game.
Comparing the two Visible Freedoms (currently displayed side-by-side at the Pacific Pinball Museum) helps demonstrate the incredible leap in technology as machine control went digital and pinball lost almost 100 pounds in electromechanical parts and mechanisms.
Stay tuned for upcoming info on our Science of Pinball program as it develops.