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Few electronic innovations are as closely associated with a
single application as the tilt mechanism is with modern pinball machines.
Designed to serve dual roles as an anti-cheating and damage-prevention device,
the tilt mechanism halts a game when a player excessively shakes or slams the
pinball machine to affect play.

The very first pinball machine to feature a tilt sensor,
Bally’s Signal, came to market almost 70 years ago, and since that time,
most major production pinball games have featured some form of tilt mechanism. Of
course, the tilt sensor found inside Signal is quite different from
modern designs, and users didn’t originally call it a tilt device.

The first recognized tilt design consisted of a small metal
ball resting on a nonconductive pedestal above a metallic ring. Inordinately
jostling the pinball game shook the ball off the pedestal and onto the metal
ring, thus completing a circuit that halted game play.

Because of the specifics of the design and its purpose to
alert game operators to cheating and vandalism, these devices’ original name
was “stool pigeon.” Alas, the pedestal-and-ball design was
unreliable, and an improved version that used a small pendulum replaced it as
early as 1935. The same pinball pioneer designed both the original and revised
tilt mechanisms.


What pinball pioneer designed the original “stool
pigeon” as well as succeeding pendulum-based tilt mechanisms?

Stanford engineer Harry Williams, who would later found
legendary pinball manufacturer Williams Electronics, designed both the original
pedestal and now commonplace pendulum tilt mechanisms.

The revised design consisted of a metal chain hung within a
horizontal metal ring. If a players tilted or rattled the pinball machine, the
chain would swing into the ring, completing the circuit and halting game play.

This design was more reliable than the ball-and-pedestal
predecessor, which Williams called the stool pigeon. Williams rechristened his
invention after he overheard early pinball players using the term

Williams’ pinball legacy is hardly limited to the tilt
mechanism. He also designed the first electrically powered pinball machine.
Pacific Amusements’ Contact, which first appeared in 1933, included a
scoring pocket with a solenoid kicker inside, powered by a dry cell battery.

If a player managed to cajole a ball into the scoring pocket,
the kicker would automatically eject it, prolonging the game and allowing for
higher scores. Contact proved so popular that within two years, every
pinball manufacturer had adapted to the electric craze.

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