Friday July 19, 2024

The History of Skee-Ball Machines

Author: Wayne Eggert
Date: 2/1/2012


Skee-Ball machines have been around for over 100 years and are a staple to any boardwalk arcade or amusement park.  There's some kind of magical draw to Skee-Ball that has kept both adults and children coming back for more even after more than a century since its inception.  Maybe it's the friendly competition, maybe it's reminiscing of simpler times, or trying to beat one's personal best score.  The game has undergone some changes over the years, but the basic premise has remained the same -- roll a baseball-sized wooden or plastic ball down a long alley into holes assigned various point values.  The object is to score as many points as you can, which generate tickets that are redeemable for prizes.  Skee-Ball is timeless.  Skee-Ball is ageless. Skee-Ball is... a heck of a lot of fun!!!

Surely there's something to be said for an arcade game that is so widely known that nearly every adult has played Skee-Ball at one point in their lives or has at least heard of it.  Skee-Ball, Inc. indicates there are around 80,000 Skee-Ball machines in the world, and growing.  Most arcade games have a few years at best before they are replaced by newer games with better graphics or more complicated gameplay.. and forgotten.  Yet, Skee-Ball machines are still one of the most popular arcade machines today.  Why is this?  Where did they come from?  How did they evolve?  Those are just some of the questions this author would like to answer in this, "The History of Skee-Ball Machines".

A Brief History of Early Skee-Ball

Skee-Ball, as it's widely known today, was a game invented and patented by Princeton University alumni Jonathan Dickinson Este in Philadelphia in 1909.  Este was the son of a lumberyard owner, lumber that was key to building the machine.  Este built the game as a birthday gift to his son.  The gift consisted of a 36ft long alley, wooden rails and heavy metal balls that could land in 3 holes on the scoring board.  It was an instant hit at the party, and Este decided to bring the game to the town fair for a larger audience to enjoy.  The alley was popular and by 1911 Este was manufacturing alleys for private sale to the public.  Este originally called the alley "Box Ball".  Sales were slow, however, since it was word-of-mouth and Este did not advertise or market the alleys for sale.

In 1914, the first Skee-Ball lanes were manufactured & distributed to outdoor amusement parks by Maurice Piesen.  Maurice grew up in a family involved in the outdoor amusement industry and would help to bring Skee-Ball to a much larger audience.  Originally the alleys were kept 36ft long, but as you could imagine, it took a lot of strength to roll a wooden ball down a 36ft alley.  This limited the audience of the game to mostly men.  In 1928, Maurice decided to broaden the audience by reducing the alley's size to 14ft.  This tremendously increased its popularity since it could be enjoyed by women, children & the elderly and also allowed for Skee-Ball machines to be placed indoors.  In 1932 the first National Skee-Ball Tournament was held in Atlantic City, NJ.

The Rudolph Wurlitzer Manufacturing Co. (Wurlitzer) bought the National Skee-Ball Co. and rights to manufacture Skee-Ball machines from Piesen in 1935.  Wurlitzer built their own versions of the game, which had an art-deco look.  The design of the body of the machine was done by Paul Fuller, designer of the Wurlitzer Jukebox cabinets of that time.  Up until this time the Skee-Ball machines were manually operated, meaning an attendant would take the money from the player.  In 1936 the National Skee-Ball Co. introduced a coin operated Skee-Ball, which allowed anyone to put a nickel into the machine to allow release of the balls (via ball release lever) and begin playing.  This Skee-Ball was very popular and Skee-Ball machines manufactured ever since have had similar appearance and functionality.  During this time the National Skee-Ball Company promoted the 10ft alley as the regulation size so players could compete at any location.  The ramp at the end of the alley that launches the ball into the scoring board, however, was adjustable and could make it easier or more difficult to get a high score.

In 1945 the copyrights, patents and exclusive rights to manufacture Skee-Ball alleys were sold to the Philadelphia Toboggan Company from Wurlitzer.  The Philadelphia Toboggan Company had been building carousels and roller coasters since 1904 and saw the Skee-Ball alleys as a way to diverisfy business.  They concentrated more on craftsmanship (prior to this manufacturing was more assembly-line based so craftsmanship wasn't as high of quality).  Each machine received a total of 55 dedicated hours of specialized work before it was completed.  Many mechanical and electro-mechanical Skee-ball alleys were sold to arcades and amusement parks.

Original PTC Factory
Photo: Philadelphia Toboggan Company at 130 Duvall St. Germanstown,
Philadelphia, Pa. circa 1922.  Vehicle is Henry B. Auchy's company car,
President of PTC 1904-1922.  Photo is copyright Philadelphia Toboggan
Coasters Inc.

Mechanical and Electro-Mechanical Alleys

The very early skeeball machines (1909 thru 1930s) were completely mechanical.  After inserting a nickel or dime, you pulled a ball release lever which would both release the balls and trigger the mechanical resetting of the flip-style score unit.  Scoring points would trigger the mechanical mechanism that flipped the score display numbers (similar to how a rolodex flips) based on point value scored.  These early games did not use any electricity at all and are a marvel of mechanical operation.

An early ad from 1937 below shows Wurlitzer's mechanical Skee-ball alley with an art deco style that was popular during the 1920s and 1930s.

Wurlitzer Skee Ball AdEarly Skee Ball Diagram
Photo: Early Skee Ball Diagram & 1937 Wurlitzer Skee Ball Ad.  Photo credits unknown

Some time later, possibly as early as the 1950s, electricity was added to the Skee-ball machines.  These machines, known as "electro-mechanical" since they used electricity to activate mechanical components, contain various coils, relays, switches and contact boards that are wired to form a "computer".  Much of the technology used on arcade & pinball games from the 1950s thru the 1970s came from the technology produced during war efforts.  Electricity helped to replace many of the purely mechanical parts on these machines that would wear out or develop issues over time.  Philadelphia Toboggan Company produced many of these electromechanical alleys and they appear to have been named according to the year they were manufactured (ie. "Model 66" would have been built in 1966).

1950s Skee-Ball Machine

Photo: Electro-Mechanical Skee-Ball from the 1950s.

In 1967 automatic ticket dispensers were added to the alleys, luring kids of all ages to the possibility of winning large prizes by playing the game and helping to keep Skee-Ball popularity high.  For many kids, the tickets were like a form of currency -- tickets could be accumulated & saved over the course of months or years and eventually cashed in for that big prize -- a stereo, or television.. or big stuffed animal.

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Origin of Skee Ball Machine
Posted 03/17/12 3:37AM by Anonymous Techdoser
I KNOW where the name "Skee Ball" came you know where it came from?