The Glory of the Pinball Machine

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An homage to the innovations of Steve Kordek, pinball-machine tinkerer, who passed away last weekend at the age of 100.

What is it about the pinball machine that draws us in? Even today in our time of gorgeously illustrated video games, pinball machines continue to have an enchanting quality. In part this is the result of the game's visuals: the lights, colors, and artwork. But it's also a credit to the game's simple mechanical brilliance -- the fun and challenge of timing the action of two levers to guide the pinball into the machine's most lucrative spots.

The game was not always so simple. Early pinball machines demanded that a player shake the entire table in an effort to guide the ball through the obstacles (pins -- hence the name). Later iterations had mechanical flippers like today's, but more of them -- six, which were distributed three on each side up and down the body of the machine. It wasn't until 1948 that the standard two-flipper version was introduced, designed by Steve Kordek in an effort to save on production costs. But the two-flipper machine was a hit; its use of a direct-current (as opposed to alternating, which other companies were using at the time) meant the flippers were more precise in their motion, and, with only two, the game experience was more streamlined.

Kordek passed away last weekend at the age of 100 in Park Ridge, Illinois. In his career, he moved on from mechanical games to video games, but the double-flipper pinball machine was "perhaps his most significant contribution." Its success is a testament to the basic importance of getting the hardware right: Without Kordek's innovation, pinball would be an overdecorated gambling machine. But together, the marriage of artistry and tech provides that particular pinball allure.



Images: 1 & 2. Reuters; 3 - 9. AP; 10. Wikimedia Commons.

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Rebecca J. Rosen is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Business Channel. She was previously an associate editor at The Wilson Quarterly.

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