The evolution of flippers on pinball machines

Flipper bats are what makes a pinball machine a pinball machine as we know it. The flipperbats that a player can control, are what makes it different from a bingo machine or other type of skill machine. Flippers are like an extension of the players' body, controlled by players’ fingertips, to control the pinball on the playfield.

Flipper bat history

Through history the flipperbat evolved. Not only the position on the playfield but the size also changed. In the 1930ies, pin-ball skill machines started to appear. Literally pin-ball machines, they had metal pins (nails) and a ball.
The first machines were purely mechanical, soon electricity was added to keep score and be able to interact with the ball. They play similar to how todays bingo machines still play. A plunged ball will enter the top of a sloped playfield. It will bounce around while it rolls down towards the bottom. The goal is to score as much points possible, usually by being able to get the ball stuck in specific locations or holes. Once a pinball reaches the bottom of the playfield, it's either out of the game (or can be plunged again).

Flippers appeared at the end of the 1940ies. Humpty Dumpty, released by Gottlieb in 1947 is the first machine to have player controlled flippers.
The flipper mechanism on it was invented by Harry Mabs. Flippers started more as an novelty mechanism to influence the path of the pinball, a bit similar to how pop bumpers bounce the ball around. The main difference with other assemblies on the playfield, was that flippers were controlled by the player. Some skill was introduced, a player could have some control by something else than nudging the whole machine.

Gottlieb Humpty Dumpty pinball machine
Humpty Dumpty, the first pinball machine with flippers. Notice the instructions for the player that there are buttons to control them on the sides of the machine.

The flippers on Humpty Dumpty can't be really compared to flippers on todays games. They weren't powerful, gameplay was different. The flippers are located on the side of the playfield. Whilst they allowed the player to get the pinball longer on the playfield, their goal was especially to get the ball towards the center of the playfield where you could score big if the ball entered some holes.
In general the way you play these machines was still the same as before: the ball would enter on top of the playfield, follow a path towards the bottom, and you'd try to score as many points as possible until the ball reached the bottom.

Pinball designer Steve Kordek is attributed to be first to put the flippers at the bottom of the playfield. That was a year later, on the 1948 game called Triple Action. Although the flippers are positioned reversed from what we're used to now, (both flipper bats point outwards instead of inwards), the modern layout is generally acknowledged to have evolved from Steve's work. And why is that exactly? Because flippers at the bottom of the playfield were literally a game changer. It totally changed how the pinball game was played.

With having flippers at the bottom, a skilled player suddenly had the opportunity to propel the ball back towards the very top of the playfield. The only path wasn't a ball rolling down because of gravity. A 5-ball game didn't end when each of the 5 plunged balls had rolled onced down to the bottom of the playfield. What changed with flippers, was that a player could flip the ball towards the top of the playfield to have another go to add points. And again, and again, until the ball really disappeared from the playfield by draining at the bottom.

Genco Triple Action pinball machine
Genco Triple Action, the first machine with flippers at the bottom of the playfield.

The first game to have flippers in the most traditional position like we know it now, was created in 1950 by Wayne Neyens. Gottliebs Sport Bowler has 2 flippers at the bottom center, with the flipperbats towards each other.

Most of the games that followed in the 1950ies were a further experiment / evolution of positioning flipper bats somewhere at the bottom of the playfield, sometimes high, sometimes a bit more low, far away from each other, and so on. The style of playing was usually still a combination of nudging and using the flippers. A lof of rubber rings at the bottom and sides of the game could be used by players to nudge the ball towards a specific direction.
The layout with flippers at the center became more popular by players, and you see pinball designers started to use it more often and experimented less with other positions.

Hawaiian Beauty pinball machine
Gottlieb Hawaiian Beauty (1954).
Not a classic playfield layout, the flippers are on the sides halfway of the playfield. Once the ball reaches the bottom part, a player can only try to score as many points as possible between the popbumpers, but can't actively get the pinball back to the top part.

During the 1960ies and 1970ies, the layout of pinball playfields and the style of playing changed. Coils that power flippers and other mechanisms became more powerful, by switching from AC to DC power. The pinball game itself became much faster action. Hard, fast shots were possible from the bottom of the playfield towards the top. Players needed to react much faster. The style of playing changed totally. Instead of being a slower game where the ball rolled down, and players needed to be skilled in soft nudging and not tilting, a pinball was now always kicked away fast. Players needed to react fast and be able to skillfully aim with the flippers.

Flipper bats weren't positioned alone at the bottom with a lot of open space around them. Lane guides appeared, making (small) outlanes and inlanes that guide the ball towards the flipper, ready for the next shot. The flippers really became the most important mechanism on a pinball playfield to react with the pinball.

Gottlieb Neptune pinball machineGottlieb Neptune (1978).
Not yet a traditional design, still a bit of an experiment. On the right side the older style of a slinghot right above the flipper bat, while the left flipper has an outlane and inlane and a more traditional looking slingshot. This really is a weird, asymetrical combination.

In the late 1970ies, most manufacturers switched over from the smaller 2 inch flipper bats towards 3 inch flipper bats. They are more fun to play. They allow a more precise control. They allow a larger range of shots and better, more powerful aim. These 3 inch flipper bats are still in use on modern games.

The first game to feature 3 inch flippers was Williams Hayburner 2, from 1968. In 1971ies there were some other games that had them, like Gottlieb PlayBall, Williams Suspense and Bally Mariner. All manufacturers tested them but didn't immediately switch. Bally for instance, still released a series of games with their zipper flippers that still featured smaller bats, and also released some 3 inch flipper bat machines in those years.

Space Time pinball machineBally Space Time (1971), one of the first Bally machines to feature 3 inch flipper bats.

As with everything pinball related: popular machines with features that players like, earn money for operators.
Games that earn money are in demand and sell well. So manufacturers try to make more machines like that. Eventually the 3 inch flippers became standard, by the end of the 1970ies all brands had made the switch.

It was also in the 1970ies that the 'italian bottom' was requested and started to become standard. While some manufacturers still experimented in the 1980ies with other flipper setups, the italian bottom became standard by the middle of the 1980ies.

Italian bottom

As the story goes, pinball players in Italy in bars liked to show off their skills. They liked to be able to trap a ball on the flipper, hold it in place, call some of their friends to the game and then display their mad pinball skill by then making a certain shot to impress everyone - for instance when they're just getting a high score or some other kind of achievement. And if possible, they were able to catch the ball again, control it, and show off their trick again.

QBert Quest flippers Gottliebs Q-Bert Quest: impossible to try to trap a pinball on the flipper on this machine.

This wasn't possible on all pinball machines. Some had a layout of flippers and slingshots that didn't allow a pinball to be trapped. So operators got this request from players, and let the manufacturers know about this. Related to this story, the term italian bottom is now used for games that have the standard layout as we know it now. On each side an outlane, inlane and the flippers in central position. No special layouts anymore of multiple outlanes, off center flippers or other experiments. Pinball designers noticed this was a layout that players preferred and they didn't try to invent something new anymore.

Gottlieb Target Alpha pinball machineGottlieb Target Alpha (1976) with an italian bottom layout.

Zipper flippers

Zipper flippers are a special mechanism that mostly Bally used on a series of games between 1966 and 1973. They can be found on games like Fireball and 4 million BC.

The flipper bats can move together in their resting position. In normal position there's a normal gap between the flippers. When the player hits a small bumper on the playfield, suddenly the flippers move close to each other. They're close enough in resting position that a pinball can't drain between. The flippers are still active, you can flip and shoot the ball. Hit another target on the playfield and the flippers open up again.

Bally Fireball pinball machineBally Fireball (1972) with zipper flippers open.

Bally Gator pinball machineBally Gator (1969) with zipper flippers closed.

Lightning flippers

Lightning flippers can be found on some Bally / Williams WPC games sold in 1992 - 1993. They are 1/8th inch smaller compared to the normal 3 inch flipper bats. Their name comes from the lightning bolt on top.

They originated from the request of a large french importer. Operators complained about decreasing earnings. Pinball players had become so skilled, and some playfield layouts became less random and had more predictable shots, that a game could last a long time.
One of the ideas to solve this, was to install smaller flippers om some games. The gap between the flippers becomes larger (so the ball may drain faster) and some shots become harder.

Williams installed them on only a limited list of games: Fish Tales, Doctor Who, Bram Stokers Dracula and Popeye.

Some pinball owners prefer them, others don't. Some like to keep them because that's how the games shipped originally.
On the other hand, the playfields were not designed to make use of the smaller flipper bats. They were designed (and play better) with normal length flipper bats. Bram Stokers Dracula for instance even was intended to ship with regular dark red flipper bats.
I'm in the latter camp, I prefer games to play good and how the designer intended, and don't follow strict how it left the factory. So on my games I prefer to install normal flipper bats.

Bally Doctor Who pinball machineBally Doctor Who (1992) with lightning flipper bats.

Banana flippers

This was an experiment by Bally on games Time Warp, Disco Fever. The flippers aren't straight but curved. They weren't popular and made for some weird behavior.

Ribbed flippers

At the end of the 1980ies, Bally / Midway used their own style of flipper bat. It was also 3 inch, but ribbed on top.

Bally Atlantis pinball machineBally Atlantis (1989) with ribbed flipper bats.

Boney flippers

Ballys Scared Stiff pinball machine has a special type of flipper bats. The machine has many 3D molded parts, including slingshots, lane guides and flipper bats.

Bally Scared Stiff pinball machineBally Scared Stiff (1997) with 3D boney flipper bats.