History of the most important American pinball manufacturers

This article isn't about the history of pinball itself. You can find enough websites that explain how the french bagatelle game evolved, and score counters, bumpers and flippers were added until it reached what we now call a pinball machine.
Now we'll talk about the largest and most important American companies that manufactured pinball machines. Almost all have a long history. Gottlieb was started in 1927 by David Gottlieb, Williams in 1946 by Harry Williams, and Bally's history started in 1932 when it was founded by Ray Moloney.

Takeovers, bankrupcies, name changes and more, make the history of one company merge with that of another. Subsiliaries became independent and could become so big that years later they could take over their former holding company.
Noteable is that there are only a limited number of people (or families) that were involved with most of these companies. Most other articles about the history of pinball (or pinball companies) group everything for one specific company, but I have chosen to group events by family/persons.


D. Gottlieb logo

The Gottlieb company existed the longest of all as a family company: 50 years, as it was founded in 1927 and was only sold in 1977 to Colombia Pictures. They helped define the pinball machine as we know it now, in the early years they made mechanical pintables like Baffle Ball.
In 1935 they started to make electric games, and they were the first to add flipper bats to a playfield: with Humpty Dumpty in 1947 the real pinball machine was born.

Gottlieb Humpty Dumpty
Gottlieb Humpty Dumpty - the first pintable with flippers. Photo by Gregory Johnson.

After 1977 as a subsidiary of Columbia Pictures, they were able to make a lot of machines that were tied-in to the movies, like Pink Panther, Spiderman, James Bond.
They did not only produce pinball machines but also arcade games, such as Q-Bert. This popular license was even used as a pinball theme: Q*Bert's Quest.

After a few years Columbia Pictures themselves were bought by Coca-Cola. The Gottlieb subsidiary was renamed to Mylstar in 1983.
In 1984 however Coca-Cola wanted to close them. Eventually a management buyout happened: Premier Technology was founded, run by Gilbert Pollock (former manager) together with the Fesjian family (which owned the company Mondial, which was a large distributor)
Premier Technology continued to make pinball machines under the Gottlieb brand name until juli 1996. Barb Wire was their last produced pinball machine.
Mondial Group still owns the rights to Gottlieb pinball machines.

Pinball remained in the blood of the Gottlieb family.
In 1992, David Gottliebs son Alvin, together with his son Michael, started the company Alvin G. They couldn't use the Gottlieb name as it was still licensed to Premier, therefor the G. They only made a limited number of games and quit in 1994.

Roy Moloney

Bally logo

Roy Moloney didn't start as an existing manufacturer. Most of all he was a very good salesman. He sold amusement games from other manufacturers. When Gottlieb couldn't supply him enough games to fulfil his orders, he started to produce his own cheap pintables: Ballyhoo.
The name Ballyhoo and artwork on the pinball machine were based on a magazine with the same name.

Bally Wulff logo

Finally Roy started his own company: Bally, named after the game that brought him success.
He ran the company until his death in 1958.

In 1963 the company was taken over by a group of investors. The next years they took over a lot of other companies, like Midway (that made amusement games) and the German Wulff.
In the 1980 Bally extended her operations and investments to casinos, amusement parks (Six Flags) and fitness clubs. Because of the many takeovers the company needed extra cash, and in 1988 they sold Midway together with the pinball department to Williams. The Bally holding still exists but is not active with producing amusement games anymore.

Harry Williams and the Stern family

Harry Williams already worked in the 1930 for Bally and Rock-Ola. In 1946 he started his own company: Williams Manufacturing Company.
In 1949 Sam Stern was hired as Vice-President. Around 1960 Harry sold his part of the company to Sam.

Retiring wasn't something for Harry Williams. In the 1960ies he started a new company: Southland Engineering. This produced a mini-golf game Little Pro, which was later bought by Williams and produced as a 2-player game. Even at late age, Harry kept on designing pinball playfields (even for Stern Electronics) until his death.

In 1964 Seeburg (known as a jukebox manufacturer) took over Williams and United. Sam Stern became in charge of both subsidiaries. Their activities were nicely split: Williams produced pinball machines, shooting games and arcade games, whilst United was known mostly because of their bowling and shuffle machines.
The Seeburg Corporation group extended her activities and even made musical instruments.

Sam Stern left Williams in 1976 and started his own company: Stern Electronics Inc. He bought assets from the pinball manufacturing department of Chicago Coin that had defaulted, and also Universal Research Laboratories (URL) : a small company of some ex-Seeburg ingeneers who developed electronic pcbs.

Chicago Coin themselves already existed from the 1930 and made a lot of amusement games. Just like their competitor Gottlieb, they were a family-owned business, owned by the families Ginsburg and Wohlberg.
In the end of the 1950ies they had taken over Genco, a smaller company that also had produced some pinball machines.

Sam Stern ran the new Stern company together with his son Gary (who had started to work at Williams in 1973). They not only produced pinball machines, but also jukeboxes and video arcade games (Berzerk is most known).
In their late years they even took over the division of Seeburg that produced jukeboxes, after that group defaulted. Stern made their last pinball machine in 1982 (Orbitor One), the company existed until 1984.

Stern Seeburg logo
Sterns Orbitor One pinball machine is the only one to feature both the Stern and Seeburg logo on its backglass.

Afterwards Gary Stern started the company Pinstar. This made conversion kits for older Bally pinball machines. They weren't a success however because alpha-numeric pinball machines came to the market, which were more popular as they were more powerful.

In 1986 Gary Stern started with some partners Data East Pinball. A number of ex-Pinstar and ex-Stern employees moved along. In 1993 this company was taken over by Sega, and the name changed into Sega Pinball. At the end of 1999, Sega decided to retire in the pinball manufacturing business (game sales were declining year after year). Gary Stern himself took over the company which again changed its name, now into Stern Pinball Inc.

Here is what Gary Stern told me about this time:
I worked at Williams in most summers from time I was 16 in 1961. In that year I starting working in the stockroom, and over the subsequent years I worked in all departments. Although Harry Willams has sold his ownership in to Sam many years before, he always worked with us. Further than working with us, he was near a 2nd father to me.
In 1964 Sam sold Williams to Seeburg. He remained at Williams as president until he retired, except for a 1 year stint as EVP of Bally.
When I graduated law school in January 1971, I went to work for a La Salle Street law firm, which was a corporate and business bankruptcy firm. In 1973 I left the practice of law and joined Williams full time. Sam was President.
In 1976, we left Williams and Sam retired. I bought and sold slot machines, including from Williams.
Chicago Dynamic Industries, Inc. dba Chicago Coin was owned by the Ginsburg and Wohlberg families. In 1976 that company was in default on its bank loans. The bank foreclosed, resulting in the bank's acquisition of all the CDI assets, including its factory. Investors including my brother and myself formed Stern Electronics, Inc., which purchased all these assets that formerly belonged to CDI. Sam worked there part time as vice president, but certainly was a moving force. My brother continued in his practice of medicine. I operated the company as president.
Harry passed away in the early 1980's. Sam passed away after a long illness in 1984. We operated the company until later 1984. The game business significantly changed and we closed Stern Electronics.
[Most people think Stern Pinball is a continuation of Stern Electronics]. Among my activities in the next few years was the design, manufacture and sale at Pinstar of the Gametron conversion kit for Bally pinball machines. In 1986 I interested Data East in an investment to create a new pinball company, and Data East Pinball, Inc. was formed. In 1994 we sold Data East Pinball to Sega, and we changed its name to Sega Pinball, Inc. In 1999, my group bought Sega Pinball, and we changed its name again to Stern Pinball, Inc.

Nicastro family

Back to the 1970ies. The Seeburg group had been taken over, but got into financial problems. With Louis Nicastro in charge it became indendant and the group split up further. Subsidiary Williams was a flourishing business, and after the bankrupcy of Seeburg in 1979, Williams Electronics became an independant company.

In the 1980ies Williams became leader in producing pinball machines (Bally was in the 1970ies and Gottlieb in the 1950s and 1960s). The name of the pinball machine department changed into Williams Electronic Gaming, and the holding group became Williams Industries.
In 1988 Williams took over Bally Midway Manufacturing Company, who produced pinball machines and video arcades. Part of the deal was that they could continue to use the Bally name and logo for this type of machines. From then on, Williams sold pinball machines alternately with Bally and Williams logo, but everything was produced in the same factory.

In 1991 Williams Gaming was founded, a subsidiary that specified in gambling machines. Revenues became so good that in october 1999, management of the group, lead by Neil Nicastro (son of Louis) decided to close the pinball machine division, because in contrast to the other department their revenues were less - even though Pinball2000 had just been launched and sales were successful. The intellectual rights of the pinball machines and parts were later sold to Illinois Pin Ball and The Pinball Factory / Mr Pinball Australia (who in turn has sold them to Planetary Pinball).

Atari and Capcom

Atari and Capcom are exceptions in this list. Both aren't family owned companies and they have no long history of producing amusement games (in the USA). They produced pinball machines for a limited number of years : Atari from 1976 to 1983 and Capcom from 1994 to 1996. The subsidiary of Capcom USA that produced pinball machines was GameStar.

Mid 1996 there was an announcement that Sega and Capcom were investigating if they could merge their pinball departments, but this did not happen. End of 1996 Capcom Pinball closed their doors.
In 2000 the rights and parts of Capcom Pinball were bought by Illinois Pin Ball, who later re-produced the Big Bang Bar pinball machine.

Big Bang Bar pinball cabinet artwork