Pinball machines were commonplace in arcades and snackbars when Koen Heltzel was a child in Roermond, The Netherlands, in the early 1990s, but by the time he had grown up and left home they had all but disappeared. Then one day in 2007 he spotted an old machine called Starship Troopers on an online auction site and bought it for his new apartment. "And that," he says, "is when the pinball bug well and truly bit me."
There's an adage in pinball circles that single machines get lonely: it is only a matter of time before the first is joined by many more. And sure enough, the 27-year-old web designer's first pinball machine was soon joined by one, two, three and eventually four more. Today, these large, heavy, noisy, but strangely beautiful contraptions dominate Heltzel’s small flat.
Heltzel is not alone. Pinball machines, or "pins", are increasingly falling into the private hands of a vibrant community of fanatics – known as pinheads. Some people are interested in pin history, some see them as an art form, some like restoring them, most people simply enjoy getting together with other pinheads and playing them. Then, there are those like Hetzel, who want to hack the hardware and software to give the game a decisive spring-loaded kick into the 21st Century.
These hackers, or modders as they are known, find it impossible to resist any opportunity to customise pinball machines to make them look cooler and play better – from adding new artwork or a few extra parts to building an entire souped-up machine from scratch. "In the past I used to mod cars," explains serial modder Stan Simpson. "Now I mod pinball machines. I think it's just that some generations are more hands on than younger people today, who maybe just sit down with an X-Box and don't fiddle."
Pinball machines are marvels of old-fashioned engineering: steel balls careering around a playfield, propelled by flippers, slingshots and pop bumpers. Take a look inside one and you'll find mechanical switches, heavy electrical coils, springs, levers and – more than anything else – hundreds and hundreds of yards of wiring.
Its origins hail from the 19th Century French game of bagatelle, but the first versions of the game as we know it began to appear out of Chicago factories in the 1930s. The tilt mechanism was invented in 1934 to stop players lifting and shaking the games, the bumper followed in 1937. Ten years later, the flipper made its debut in a pinball game called Humpty Dumpty, and with it the modern form of the game was born.
Almost immediately pinball became a symbol of youth and rebellion, helped in large part to the game being banned from the early 1940s to the mid-1970s in most of America's big cities, including New York, Los Angeles and even Chicago. Authorities said pinball was a game of chance, not skill, and therefore deemed it to be a form of gambling. New York’s Mayor Fiorello La Guardia held Prohibition-style raids to round up thousands of machines, with high-profile scenes of him smashing machines with a sledgehammer before having them dumped into the city's rivers. Private ownership was permitted, but in 1970s New York pinball machines found their way into Wall Street brokerage firms, Harlem’s pornographic shops, and legend has it, the psychology department at Hunter College in the City University of New York – their shells providing handy mazes for conditioned-response experiments to assess how quickly rats can escape from them.
In terms of its technology, pinball machines from the 1950s through to the mid-1970s were entirely electro-mechanical, but the late 1970s saw the first electronic machines controlled by microprocessors running rudimentary software. By the early 1990s the computing power in pinball machines – though still limited – was sufficient to power dot matrix displays that displayed scores and other simple graphics, and this was enough to drive the last boom in the popularity of pinball. In 1993, over 120,000 machines were produced to satisfy demand.