By Andrew Smith
It has been nearly a century since coin-operated pinball machines were first manufactured in the early 1930’s. Nearly forty years before Pete Townshend of The Who told us that he “sure plays a mean pinball,” these simple machines were an affordable source of entertainment for people who sought a brief moment of fun during the Great Depression.
Once the machines began gaining popularity with children, politicians seemed to think that the pinball machines were a “gateway” to gambling on slot machines. Specifically, many politicians claimed that children would skip school and spend their lunch money on pinball.
Unfortunately, because the birth of pinball took place during the Great Depression, claiming that pinball machines were causing children to starve was a particularly strong argument.
In the late 1930’s and early 1940’s, pinball tables were declared to be gambling machines and banned in major cities such as New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. Following the nationwide prohibition on the game, pinball machines began evolving into a completely different game where flippers, microprocessors, and digital displays eventually all became standard.
The saving grace of pinball machines was the integration of flippers, which began with David Gottlieb’s ‘Humpty Dumpty’. In declaring an ordinance outlawing pinball unconstitutional, the California Supreme Court held, “[P]inball machines equipped with flippers, permitting manipulation of the ball by the player, are predominantly games of skill.” Cossack v. Los Angeles, 11 Cal. 3d 726, 732, 114 Cal. Rptr. 460, 464, 523 P.2d 260, 264 (1974). This distinction was important because games of skill were able to be licensed while coin-operated games of chance were considered illegal gambling.
Two years later, the New York City Council decided to lift the citywide ban after watching a legendary pinball player, Roger Sharpe, explain and call his shots before making them. This demonstration, coupled with Sharpe’s testimony that pinball was a game of skill, motivated the council to vote unanimously in favor or lifting the ban.
Since the 1970’s all states have repealed their statewide bans on pinball, except one.
Under South Carolina law, “It is unlawful for a minor under the age of eighteen to play a pinball machine.” S.C. Code Ann. § 63-19-2430. Furthermore, it is unlawful for a minor to play billiards or loiter in a billiard room unless the minor’s parent or guardian is present or has given their written consent. S.C. Code Ann. § 63-19-2420. Although South Carolina has many outdated laws, these two laws became effective in 2008. 2008 S.C. Acts 361.
Despite the clear language of the law, many establishments not only allow but encourage children to play pinball. Bang Back Pinball Lounge, a bar in Columbia, is the meet-up location for The Little Flippers, a network of kids who gather to learn pinball. Also, Soda City Comic Con will host a pinball tournament in August where people of all ages are invited to compete for cash prizes. Obviously, owners of pinball establishments are treating the law as if it does not exist.
House Bill 5139 was introduced earlier this year to repeal the law forbidding children from playing pinball. The South Carolina House of Representatives voted on the bill and it passed by a vote of 106 to 3. It has been over two months since the bill was referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee without any action being taken.
This pending legislation is not the first of its kind. In 2015, Senator Stephen Goldfinch introduced House Bill 4535 which attempted to repeal some of the most ridiculous and outdated South Carolina laws. Besides the pinball law, House Bill 4535 also attempted to repeal the following laws:
S.C. Code Ann. §16-3-410 – Sending or accepting a challenge to fight
S.C. Code Ann. §16-15-50 – Seduction under promise of marriage
S.C. Code Ann. §16-15-60 – Adultery or fornication
S.C. Code Ann. §16-19-20 – Adventuring in lotteries
S.C. Code Ann. §52-13-10 – Unlawful operation of public dancing halls on Sundays
S.C. Code Ann. §53-1-40 – Unlawful work on Sundays
S.C. Code Ann. §53-1-60 – The prohibited sale of certain items on Sunday
Sadly, House Bill 4535 was referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee and no further action was taken before the session adjourned. For the sake of children everywhere in this state, one can only hope that the Senate Judiciary Committee makes the right choice next time.
Contributor: Justin Lawlor