Inside The Stern Pinball Factory, Again

About six months after the Popular Mechanics article about the last great pinball factory, Stearns gets the video treatment from the Onion’s A.V. Club. Stearn is the “oldest and largest designer and manufacturer of arcade-quality pinball games [remaining] on the planet”



I was surprised to learn that about fifty percent of all pinball machines produced by Stern are exported out of the country. Additionally, most of the parts are manufactured in Chicago and the machines are hand assembled. I think if Trump truly wants to throw some money at American manufacturing the pinball machine industry would be a great place to start.

Inside The Stearn Pinball Factory

Manufacturing as a whole in America has been suffering. Add to that the fact that video game consoles have entered millions of homes since the early 90s and you have a perfect storm that has resulted in the shuttered and faltering sales of major pinball manufacturers for decades. A great pinball machine requires a vast amount of craftsmanship, and one of largest producing places you’ll find that kind of work happening today is at Stern Pinball. Last month Popular Mechanics went inside of Stearn Pinball manufacturing facility to see how a 21st-century pinball machine comes together. It examines the process by dividing it into four main sections:

  • Finding a license
  • Designing the game
  • Sub-Assembly
  • Assembly and testing
  • While there won’t be anything new in the article for enthusiasts, it is an excellent primer on pinball manufacturing in America. What pinball machines and manufacturers has sold the most over the years? The table below could give some insight.

    The Highest Selling Pinball Machines Of All Time

    A list of all pinball machines that have sold 10,000 or more units, Source: IPDB
    YearName  (Click to display that game)MFGProd.Rating
    1932BallyhooBally50,000*8.8
    1990FunhouseWilliams10,750*8.1
    1976FireballBally10,000*6.3
    1992The Addams FamilyMidway20,2708.2
    1977Eight BallBally20,2307.1
    1979FlashWilliams19,5057.6
    1978PlayboyBally18,2507.4
    1980FirepowerWilliams17,4107.8
    1986High SpeedWilliams17,0807.9
    1979KissBally17,0006.9
    1979Star TrekBally16,8427.1
    1978Mata HariBally16,2607.8
    1976Capt. Fantastic and The Brown Dirt CowboyBally16,1557.8
    1993Twilight ZoneMidway15,2358.4
    1991Terminator 2: Judgment DayWilliams15,2028.0
    1979Harlem Globetrotters On TourBally14,5507.5
    1987F-14 TomcatWilliams14,5027.7
    1979GorgarWilliams14,0007.5
    1977Evel KnievelBally14,0007.5
    1978Power PlayBally13,7507.4
    1992Fish TalesWilliams13,6408.0
    1992The Getaway: High Speed IIWilliams13,2598.0
    1980Black KnightWilliams13,0757.9
    1978Strikes and SparesBally12,8207.6
    1993Indiana Jones: The Pinball AdventureWilliams12,7168.3
    1976Royal FlushGottlieb12,2507.9
    1986PIN·BOTWilliams12,0017.9
    1978SinbadGottlieb12,0007.6
    1993Star Trek: The Next GenerationWilliams11,7288.3
    1976Space MissionWilliams11,6527.8
    1980Space InvadersBally11,4007.7
    1980XenonBally11,0007.8
    1982Mrs. Pac-Man PinballBally10,6007.1
    1976Grand PrixWilliams10,5547.5
    1992Star WarsData East10,4008.0
    1992Lethal Weapon 3Data East10,3507.5
    1980Silverball ManiaBally10,3507.4
    1979SupersonicBally10,3407.0
    1978Lost WorldBally10,3307.0
    1978The Six Million Dollar ManBally10,3207.2
    1975Spirit of 76Gottlieb10,3007.6
    1976AztecWilliams10,1507.7
    1976Surf ChampGottlieb10,0707.7
    1975Wizard!Bally10,0057.9
    1981Flash GordonBally10,0007.9

    Pinball Is A Game Of Skill, Not Chance

    Pinball was illegal in New York City from 1940 till 1976. The above short explores the surprisingly troubled history of pinball in New York and why it was banned there for over 35 years. The ban was lifted when WWII ended and the state finally (and rightfully) determined that pinball is a game of skill and not a game of chance. The great Big Story explains:

    In 1940, pinball machines were banned in New York City. Like most contraband, this simply pushed pinball underground. After the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, the “Salvage for Victory” campaign called on Americans to turn in scrap metal to bolster the war effort. As a result, then New York City mayor Fiorello LaGuardia went on a hunt for pinball machines. By February 1942, more than 3,000 machines has been confiscated, turning roughly 2,500 of them into one ton of metal for the war. Unfortunately for pinball enthusiasts, the ban in New York lasted for decades, outliving LaGuardia, who died in 1947.

    Rocky Mountain Pinball Showdown

    I love pinball. It’s physical. Getting to push around the machine. Slam my hips into it just hard enough to avoid the tilt – but still manipulate the game. It’s frustrating in the good kind of way, like a puzzle. It takes concentration and a little muscle.

    As a child I grew up playing pinball at Celebrity Sports Center and actual arcades. I rediscovered it my junior year in college. I played a lot of pinball in college. I even won a few contests held at the student center.

    A few weekends ago I went to the Rocky Mountain Pinball Showdown and had a blast. I played for about five straight hours. Fifteen dollars, all you can play. At some point in the evening they turned out all the lights and the warehouse, filled with 91 pinball machines, transformed into a dizzying blur of flashing lights and loud zoinks, bonks, sirens, and bells. It was like some sort of surreal, geeky Las Vegas. My wrists were killing me by the time the night was through. My evening consisted mostly of this:


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