By Dale Dougherty
PULL BACK THE LAUNCHER AND LET GO. an engineer named Judson, who’s been trying to
The silver ball rides up the side, follows the solve what I’ll call a “boot sequence” problem.
curve at the top, and then begins to descend. Burke sets up the linkages: Goodyear’s synthetic
This is the much-anticipated moment that makes rubber is used to make better bicycle tires, and
playing pinball so great. You just don’t know what bicycles become so popular that even women want
the ball is going to do. to ride them, which causes women’s fashion to
Michael Schiess of Lucky Ju Ju Pinball Gallery change and hemlines to rise. Women’s boots follow
( ujuju.com), profiled in our pinball feature (see suit, rising to cover more of the leg. The number of
page 74), gave me a brief history of the game. hook-and-eye fasteners on a boot was at 20 and
Pinball started as a French game known as bagatelle, growing, a time-consuming number to fasten.
something the aristocracy enjoyed playing. Judson had patented the “C-curity Fastner” but it
The playfield was a raked wooden board with didn’t take off. Sundback improved it. His version
fixed pins. The ball was launched with a cue; it had 10-11 teeth per inch to Judson’s four. He called
would bounce off the pins and eventually drop into it the “Separable Fastener” in his first patent, which
holes, which had number values for scoring. During was awarded in 1913. He also created machines to
the American Revolution, the French brought baga- make these fasteners. But his invention was also
telle to the United States, where it became popular. slow to take off, perhaps because his fasteners
Then, during the Depression, this pin game became weren’t yet fashionable.
a machine, fully mechanized; then electrified; and In 1923, the BF Goodrich Company created rub-
finally digitized. Manufacturers competed by offer- ber boots for the military that used Sundback’s fasing compelling art themes and new features; for tener, which they named the Zipper. Only later, in
instance, flippers were added in 1947. the 1930s, did zippers begin to be used widely in
The first pinball machines were placed in the clothing as a convenience.
corner grocery store but were soon clustered in Now I’ll take Burke’s example one step further,
arcades, where teenagers could hang out and act jumping beyond technology. In 1971, Andy Warhol
depraved like French nobles. Schiess and others designed an album cover for the Rolling Stones that
emphasize this social side of pinball, which was used a real zipper. The zipper had to be left open
lost when kids stayed home to play video games. partway so that the back of it would line up with the
In his book The Pinball Effect, techno-raconteur record label, and not the record itself, which it might
James Burke uses the unpredictable path of the scratch. Sticky Fingers transformed zippers from a
pinball as a metaphor for technological innovation. functional item into a pop-art icon of desire.
His book is not about how things work, but “the But wait, there’s more. The same year, a new pin-crazy way the pinball of change works its magic, ball game called Fireball introduced a new feature:
bouncing here and there across time and space.” “Zipper Flippers.” The flippers actually slide togeth-This book, like his well-known TV show Connections, er to catch the ball and prevent it from dropping
attempts to follow the nonlinear path of discoveries down the hole.
and new ideas and how they jump across borders, Even pinball machines are subject to the Pinball
industries, and disciplines. Effect. That’s just crazy.
From Burke’s book, let’s take the real-life example
of Gideon Sundback, a Swedish-born Canadian
engineer who works for the Universal Fastener
Company in the early 1900s. Sundback works for
Dale Dougherty ( firstname.lastname@example.org) is editor and publisher of
MAKE and CRAF T.