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How Pinball Machines Work


The Playfield
The top of a pinball playfield
The top of a pinball playfield
Photo courtesy Martin Wiest

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­The pinball playfield itself is usually made of a wood base coated with several layers of paint and finish. The playfield is inclined at a 6-to-7-degree angle toward the player, creating a hill on which the ball is influenced by gravity just enough to speed it along though obstacles. The bumpers, ramps and flippers are all mounted onto the playfield physically with screws and glue. All of these obstacles and targets are then wired into the main controller board in the backglass area so that the computer can tell where the ball is at any given time and react accordingly by giving points or activating special features.

The underside of a pinball playfield
The underside of a pinball playfield
Photo courtesy Martin Wiest

When you first put your money in the coin slot, the coin acceptor tells the computer that it has received a credit. Once you have deposited the proper number of credits, the display flashes "Press Start." The start button is a about the size of the flipper buttons and is usually located on the front-left side of the machine.

Once the start button is pressed, a ball from the trough is placed into the launch lane in front of the plunger. On some machines, you still have to pull the plunger back and let it go to launch the ball into play. On many newer machines, however, there is simply a button or other themed device that you activate to launch the ball. When activated, a solenoid behind the ball is triggered, kicking the ball into play. The solenoid is also wired into the computer so that if a ball gets lost on the table or the player receives a multiball award, another ball can be launched onto the playfield with no action required by the player.