It could be argued that the modern pinball industry was launched in California in 1929, when a young Stanford engineering graduate named Harry Williams became one of the industry’s first game designers. To prevent cheating, Harry invented a mechanism that he originally called “stool pigeon” but soon changed to “tilt.” Williams is also credited with creating the “free play” feature that kept those quarters coming.

Several years later Williams moved to Chicago, then the center of the coin-operated amusement industry. Today, though, a small but passionate group of “pinheads,” as machine aficionados are called, believe that the Bay Area is the rightful home for the nation’s only facility dedicated to preserving and celebrating this uniquely American treasure.

“There just was no place in the whole Bay Area where people could play these old machines,” says Michael Schiess, executive director of the nonprofit Pacific Pinball Museum of Alameda, which has been around for a decade. Michael, a passionate pinhead himself, built exhibits at the Exploratorium and created art in various media before falling in love with the “interactive, kinetic art” of pinball. He figured out how to take apart, fix and restore the machines, and he went on to create a space where the community could enjoy them.  The museum, he says, is “a cool social sandbox for all ages.”

The museum has collected nearly 1,000 pinball games but has been able to display only about 100 of them at its Webster Street location. Visitors can play the machines for the price of admission: no quarters required. I’ve done it, and it’s a blast.

But the museum is now at a crossroads. It’s been given an exciting opportunity to fulfill its mission — to teach science, art and history through pinball, and to preserve and promote this important part of American culture — in a big way. All it needs is — you guessed it — money.

The museum was recently granted an exclusive negotiation agreement with the city of Alameda to restore a vacant 1902 Carnegie Library, directly across from Alameda City Hall, as its new home. Vacant since 1998, the beautiful building would allow the museum to more than triple the museum’s display capacity; it would also provide space for special exhibits, community events and classrooms — and for the 1,000 machines that collectors have pledged.

The city has already invested $4 million in building improvements. Now the Pacific Pinball Museum needs to raise some $3.5 million over the next two years — for lighting, window repair, electrical upgrades, an elevator and other requirements for ADA compliance — in order to make Alameda’s “Smithsonian of Pinball” a reality.

I’ve already done my part. At a recent fundraiser my husband and I bid on and won a 1962 Gottlieb “Olympics” pinball machine. Michael came by to install it at our house and to share with us all sorts of scientific, artistic and historical pinball trivia.

Physics: To turn off the machine without unplugging it, you can activate a “slam switch” on the underside of the playfield. (Back in pinball’s heyday, when there was a machine in virtually every bar; bar owners found it easier to slam the machines instead of unplugging them.)

History: Our machine’s backglass includes a list of Olympic Games locations.

Art: Colorful images of Olympic athletes in motion.

And the hours spent competing with family members to score 1,000 points or more? Social bonding, and a whole lot of fun.

Now it’s up to all of you past, present and future pinheads. If you believe these machines represent an important American pastime that also can teach art, physics and history, you may want to activate your flippers for a good cause; the ball’s in motion.

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