How Do Pinball Flippers Work? (Simple Explanation)

The very first time I saw a pinball machine was in an arcade filled with people playing pinball in the mid-seventies. It was a fascinating experience filled with flashing lights and unique sounds, but whether a new fan or an existing one, many often wonder how pinball flippers work.

Pinball flippers work by using an electromagnet to pull an iron rod connected to a lever, in a device called a solenoid. This solenoid is activated when a player presses the flipper button, causing the flipper to flip up, and when the button is released, it resumes its resting position.

This is a relatively simple explanation, and we go into more detail about how a pinball flipper works below. We’ll also go into more detail about pinball flippers in general, and discuss why and when they were first introduced.

How Pinball Flippers Work

The role of pinball flippers starts with the buttons to activate them. The flipper buttons are plastic caps fitted on electrical switches that switch electricity on and off to a copper wire coil. This coil is wound on a hard plastic bobbin with an iron plunger.

This coil and plunger are called a solenoid. When the coil is powered on, it becomes an electromagnet pulling the iron plunger into the bobbin core. The iron plunger is connected to a linking rod which pulls a small lever attached to the flipper.

When the flipper button is released, the switch cuts off the electricity to the coil, letting go of the iron plunger. A small spring on the flipper base then pulls the flipper back to the resting position. All of this happens underneath the pinball playing field, so the player never sees these mechanisms in action.

How The Flipper Affects The Ball

The standard pinball machine uses a hardened carbon steel ball, with a diameter of twenty-seven millimeters, weighing eighty grams. The flipper solenoid needs to generate sufficient power to kick the ball hard enough to overcome the downward slope of the playing field. A typical two-inch linear solenoid can deliver up to thirteen kilograms of force.

A normal solenoid has only one coil,but flipper solenoids are unique in that they contain two coils. The main coil generates the punch, and a second low-power coil is used to hold the plunger at the end position.

When a flipper solenoid switches on, it pulls its plunger into the bobbin core and simultaneously triggers a microswitch that switches the main coil off while switching the low-power coil on.

This is done to avoid the main coil overheating and burning out. To date, all flipper solenoids use two coils. DIY enthusiasts have constructed pinball machines with flippers that work using stepper and servo motors, but commercial machines still use the traditional dual coil flipper solenoid.

How Hard Does The Flipper Hit The Ball?

How hard a flipper hits the ball depends on the solenoids used by the pinball machine manufacturer to power the flippers. Solenoids are manufactured in many varieties based on the application and the voltage used to switch it on.

Some machines use high-power solenoids that can apply a good amount of force to the ball when the flipper hits it.

It is possible to remove the original solenoids and replace them to get more force. Before replacing them make sure that the replacement solenoids have the same voltage rating and mounting hole pattern. The player also needs to hit the ball with the end of the flipper to get maximum leverage.

When Were Flippers Added To Pinball Machines?

Flippers were first added to pinball machines in 1947, when Gottlieb brought out the Humpty Dumpty pinball machine. This machine used six flippers, with three on each side. Pinball flippers were invented by Harry Mabs and Wayne Neyens.

Many consider pinball to be an evolved version of Bagatelle, which was originally played on a table similar to a standard pool table. The objective was to use a stick to hit nine balls into holes at the opposite end of the table. Fixed pegs were used as obstacles placed in the path to make the game more difficult.

The spring launcher was invented in 1869 by Montague Redgrave and became an integral

part of the countertop Bagatelle game. It was a spring-loaded plunger used to propel the ball into the center of the field to start the game.

Bumpers And Lights

At this stage, the evolution of countertop Bagatelle to pinball was almost complete. In the 1930s, bumpers with lights and solenoids to kick the ball away replaced the steel pins, and the marbles were replaced with steel balls. However, player skill was still very limited.

The only way a player could control the ball was to try to estimate how far the spring launcher would launch the ballwhen it was pulled back to a certain degree, and then pull it back according to where they expected the ball to go to score the most points.

The Introduction Of Flippers

The introduction of flippers changed all of this because for the first time the player had a chance to defend against the ball going down the center drain. It added to the overall enjoyment while offering the opportunity of keeping the ball in play for an extended period of time. A skilled player could double and triple their playing time without spending more money.

The pinball flipper was invented in 1947 by two Chicago game designers, Harry Mabs and Wayne Neyens. The first machines using flippers were introduced by Gottlieb in their pinball game Humpty Dumpty in 1947 which used six flippers, three on each side. A few pinball machines in the 1980s had a third flipper controlled by a microprocessor.

How The Flipper Impacted Player Skill

With the introduction of the flipper, higher standards of skill evolved. A skilled player could catch the ball on the flipper arm, then with a few gentle taps of the flipper button, they could hold the ball at the flipper base for a few seconds until it lost all momentum. It would then be released to slowly roll down.

When it reached the end of the flipper, the player would be able to hit it back up with maximum force. It was a difficult move to master, needing lots of practice and concentration.

Different Levels Of Skill Evolved

The arcades prospered as players kept feeding the machines with coins to practice for hours on end. A skilled player could increase the game playing time and get a higher score, while the average player got the satisfaction of being able to hit the ball every now and then to send it up the field and extend playing time.

All machines used bumpers. These are knobs with a ring around them powered by a solenoid. When the ball hits a bumper, it would trigger the solenoid to pull the ring down and kick the ball away. Bumpers in the center of the playing field were positioned so that they kicked the ball towards the center drain, but if the player was fast enough, the ball could be hit back to the center of the field.

Some machines added ramps. Bonus points or an extra ball were awarded if the player was able to hit the ball so that it climbed the ramp and went down the other side. Hitting the ball so that it went up the ramp demanded very accurate placement using the flippers, and gave a moment of exhilaration to those who were skilled enough to do it.

Flippers Redefined High Scores

Before the flipper, a player had no control over the path the ball took on its way to the center drain. It was luck that dictated whether the ball hit high-scoring elements or not. With flippers, players could juggle the ball so that the flipper arm facing the low-scoring elements would only be used to capture the ball and hold it still.

Once this was accomplished, the ball would be softly passed over to the flipper on the other side so that it could be hit into the high-scoring area.

Some pinball machines had an element on the playing field that would activate a pop-up dome between the flipper arms for a short period of time. When the dome was up, the ball was blocked from going out of the field. Very often, a ball heading for the center drain would hit the dome and bounce off it onto one of the flippers.

This permitted low-skilled players to pass the ball to get it on the correct flipper arm before hitting it.

Flippers With Multi-Ball Games

The difference that flippers made was most visible in multi-ball games, giving the player multiple chances to keep the balls in play to continue playing the game indefinitely. Since flippers provide the possibility of accurately placing the ball, skilled players were able to hit balls into different areas of the playfield to avoid balls clustering in one area.

Types Of Pinball Flippers

In the early 1980s, even though electromechanical designs were rendered obsolete when microprocessors took over sound effect generation and light control, the basic design and construction of the flipper stayed the same. Flippers are usually made of plastic with a strip of rubber added to enable more bounce when hitting the ball.

Flipper length usually varies between one and a half inches to three inches, and the wider end of the flipper swivels around a vertical steel pin about an inch high. However, most pinball flippers take on the same form, and while you’ll see different cosmetic designs and sizes, they all work using roughly the same mechanisms.

Final Thoughts

Pinball flippers work using a solenoid device under the playfield. This solenoid is activated when the player presses the flipper button, which causes the respective flipper to flip up. When the button is released, power is cut to the solenoid and the flipper returns to its original position.