Whenever any pinball machine is designed and built, there’s a lot of paperwork generated. From the playfield drawings, the wiring diagrams and mechanical drawings of every mechanism, to the bill of materials and the purchase orders, everything has to be designed, calculated and documented.
That paperwork can also be rather revealing; about how the games were created, the personal relations between members of the design team and the state of the business at the time, with notes, suggestions and comments from the designers not uncommon amongst all the printed material.
These days much of that documentation is electronic of course, but what became of all the paperwork for some of the most historically significant and popular titles of modern times?
Well, there was one man who made it his mission to collate and preserve much of this historically-significant information during his last days working at Williams, and that man was the hugely successful and prolific game designer, Steve Kordek.
Steve made sure the records from Williams and Bally were saved, storing huge quantities of paperwork in his office and at the factory in the day prior to Williams pulling the plug on their pinball operation in late 1999. When the doors closed on pinball production at Williams’ Waukegan plant much of the documentation was sold – along with surplus stock and part-developed games such as Wizard Blocks and Playboy – to Gene Cunningham who transported it all to his Illinois Pin Ball Company base in Bloomington, Illinois.
Gene was an avid collector – and some might prefer ‘hoarder’ – of pinballs, parts and paperwork. Along with the Williams assets, he also bought the remaining stock from Capcom and used some of that to manufacture the Big Bang Bar game which had previously only made it to the prototype stage at Capcom Pinball before they too closed.
However, Gene had financial troubles of his own, and his collection of Williams files was eventually purchased by James Loflin of Pinball Inc. in 2009. James had been producing reproduction ramps and plastics for many years before selling that side of the business to Starship Fantasy so that he could concentrate on remaking Williams’ upright pinball game Pinball Circus, and more recently the Capcom title Kingpin.
James told Pinball News, “While it was not a buyout of Illinois Pinball itself, the purchase agreement included a majority of their pinball parts inventory, original Williams tooling and the Williams/Bally archives. The archives are primarily the records which Steve Kordek organized and preserved when he was chief engineer for Williams, thus they mainly consist of engineer files.”
And there were a lot of files. James told us, “For 8 years I went through and researched the archives. It truly is fascinating stuff which gives a bit of insight as to how machines were developed in the early days. The archives also revealed to me the “who’s who” of Williams pinball. Going through the archives allowed me to discover one man in particular, Gordon Horlick, who it turned out was Harry Williams’ best friend and was the Chief Engineer for Williams pinball and ultimately became Vice President of Williams until the time they were sold in the early ’60s.“
However, James appreciated that he didn’t have the space or the resources to fully exploit the wealth of information contained within these archives. “While it was an absolute thrill to have them for myself during years I had them, only a few people were able to spend any time to go through them as I didn’t have the means to display them or organize them in a way which made it easy to research them.“, he said.
The search began for a suitable home where files could be preserved, sorted, indexed, scanned and made available for exhibits and to those wishing to research pinball’s history.
The Strong museum in Rochester, New York, has an International Center for the History of Electronic Games (ICHEG) dedicated to collecting, preserving and understanding the history of all kinds of play. In 2013 they recognised how pinball was one area which was under-represented in their collection and set about expanding their archive of pinball-related material.
With a dedicated building and an equally dedicated team of archivists, The Strong seemed the perfect home for such a quantity of documents chronicling such a significant part of pinball’s history. James thought so too. “I spoke with a couple of people/organizations who wished to display some of the documents but I really wanted to keep the archives intact. Jeremy Saucier of the Strong approached me and assured me that the archives would be properly preserved and most important they would be accessible to those who wished to research them. The Strong Museum is dedicated to promoting and preserving all genres of games. I feel it is the perfect home for them.”
Jeremy told Pinball News how the team at The Strong believed pinball was important both in its own right but also core to the way video games developed and evolved. In recognition of this, he said, they grew their collection of pinball machines from eight to eighty machines representing examples from the 1930s through to today, and sought to collect and preserve archival material related to several major pinball companies. Their Atari Coin-op collection includes documentation related to the company’s design and manufacturing of pinball machines in the mid-to-late 1970s, while they partnered with Stern Pinball to preserve examples of their games as well as showcasing others in their permanent exhibit on the history of pinball.
Jeremy described how The Strong took ownership of the collection. He said, “We met Mr. Loflin several years ago and began discussing the possibility of preserving some of the coin-operated game-related materials he had. Museum staff packaged and shipped the materials to the museum last fall over the course of several days. Collections of this size and scope take time to properly process, conserve, and ultimately preserve. For example, a single folder of materials could contain hundreds of pages of various sized and kinds of paper. Some paper might be damaged and require special attention from museum conservators, others may need old staples and adhesive removed. Before the collection is accessible to researchers, our archivist must organize and rehouse the materials in acid free folders and boxes, create a ‘finding aid’ (a document that describes what’s in an archival collection and how it’s organized), and upload a record of the collection to our archives catalog so that researchers can search for various items in our archival collections.”
With such a large collection, we asked Jeremy if The Strong knew the full scope of what they had. He replied, “The museum’s archivist has not finished processing the collection, but we have a good sense of the dates covered, as well as the kinds of documentation and the games represented in the collection. The collection covers documentation from Bally, Midway, and Williams from 1933 to 2000, with the bulk of materials focused on Williams from 1947 to 1993. It includes bills of material, parts lists, memos, notes, reference materials, engineering drawings, parts diagrams, wiring diagrams, packaging testing documentation, engineer change notices, correspondence, and logbooks.”
Along with the paper documentation which forms the bulk of the collection, there are also numerous digital files stored on a variety of digital media such as floppy and hard disks. Working through these is also in The Strong’s plans, although the file formats, the media used and the integrity of that data could slow down the ingesting process. Getting all the paper documents into digital form is also the intention, both to make searching easier and to make fragile or delicate paperwork more readily accessible. Jeremy told us, “Digitization is an important tool for preservation, but it takes time and resources to do it right. And like any museum, we must prioritize. Eventually we may produce digitized versions of many of these materials, but it necessary to do the preliminary work of processing and conserving the collection first. We recognize the desirability of digitizing materials and will do that as rapidly as resources allow.”
Once the collection has been processed and secured – which is expected to be completed in Q3 of this year – the intention is to use in exhibits and also make it accessible to anyone interested in researching specific areas of pinball’s history. Jeremy described how someone would get access to the archive. “Anyone interested can contact our Brian Sutton-Smith Library and Archives of Play for more information about the collection or to schedule a research appointment. The materials will also be accessible for use in our physical and online exhibits. For example, museum guests can already play a variety of pinball machines from our collection in our Pinball Playfields exhibit, but there’s also a whitewood prototype of George Gomez’s The Lord of the Rings and reproductions of playfield drawings by Harry Williams and Mark Ritchie on display. Other pinball materials, including images of machines, flyers, photographs, and design drawings are available to view in our online exhibit with Google Arts and Culture entitled Pinball in America.“