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a game for one or two people that you play on a machine, using controls to hit a ball into targets in order to score points

Origin and usage

Pinball comes from the combination of the Old English ‘pinn’, meaning a peg or bolt, and ‘beal’, meaning spherical object. While the original meaning of pinball was occasionally used as a synonym for ‘pincushion’ in the 1800s, in the early 1900s it became the popular term for the game played on a sloped surface that has since become so popular.


The development of pinball followed the progression of several other games, including bocce and bowls, billiards, croquet, golf, bowling and shuffleboard. All of these games involve the guided movement of balls, often with the aid of a stick-like implement, to score points. While most of these pastimes developed on a large scale and were commonly played outdoors, the rise of smaller, table-top versions of these popular games paved the way for modern pinball.

In the late 1700s a crucial piece of modern pinball, the spring launcher, was developed by combining a coiled spring with a plunger. This piece of technology became commonly used for games such as bagatelle and Japanese billiards. As time went on, the size of the playing board began to shrink so that it could fit easily onto a bar counter, and the balls and wickets were replaced with marbles and metal pins. These innovations, along with the streamlining of the spring launcher by British inventor Montague Redgrave in the mid-1800s, are considered to be the earliest versions of the modern pinball machine. Pinball was popularized by coin operation and suited the need for cheap entertainment during the Great Depression.


“Somebody had tipped the American continent like a pinball machine and all the goofballs had come rolling to LA in the southwest corner.”

(Jack Kerouac)


arcade game

View the full definition in the Macmillan Dictionary.

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Macmillan Dictionary

Macmillan Dictionary

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