Set Em’ Up! Knock Em’ Down! Bowling’s Automated Pin Technology

According to the United States Bowling Congress (the national governing body for bowling as recognized by the United States Olympic Committee), 71 million people bowled at least once in 2010 and bowling is the number one participation sport in the United States. I began bowling at a young age, thanks to my parents who bowled in a weekly league at alleys in Northern Wisconsin and Upstate New York. In fact, my father and uncle were pin setters (aka “pin boys”) at the Lakeview Recreation (Chicago) and the Red Ray Lanes (Kewaunee, Wisconsin) respectively. And, no one “rolled” quite like my mother. She was so good that she even appeared, briefly although unsuccessfully, on Rochester television’s Bowling for Dollars. I recently rolled a few games and began thinking about how mechanization changed bowling. The AMF Automatic Pinspotter Records at the Archives Center details part of this history. The AMF Records allowed me to learn about part of the story—bowling’s “electric brain.”

Letterhead of the Ten-Pinnet Company, automatic bowling alleys, 1911.

Letterhead of the Ten-Pinnet Company, automatic bowling alleys, 1911. (AC0060-0001482)
The Tin-Pinnet Company of Indianapolis introduced an automatic bowling alley circa 1911 boasting the game was healthy, thrilling and automatic. Owners could purchase the alley (38 to 50 feet long), easily set it up in a space, and make a profit.

The game of bowling has changed over the years, thanks in large part to technology. Automatic pin setting technology was the first of many advances that would transform the game of bowling. Other advances, including the automatic ball return, lighted pin indicator, automatic scoring, and the electric-eye foul line violation detection, made the game more efficient and caused bowling as an industry to thrive.

Brochure, "The Automatics are Here..." AMF Pinspotter's Inc., [circa early 1950s]

Brochure, “The Automatics are Here…” AMF Pinspotter’s Inc., [circa early 1950s] (AC0823-0000001)

Brochure, "The Automatics are Here..." AMF Pinspotter's Inc., [circa early 1950s], inside spread. (AC0823-0000001-01)

Brochure, “The Automatics are Here…” AMF Pinspotter’s Inc., [circa early 1950s], inside spread. (AC0823-0000001-01)

Bowling is simple right? Throw a ball weighing approximately six to sixteen pounds down a lane and knock down ten pins. If you’re lucky, you’ll avoid throwing a gutter ball and knock down a few pins. Then, the pins you knocked down will disappear, the remaining ones will be reset and your ball will appear magically in the ball return and you can try again. This wasn’t the case with bowling prior to 1946. The technology of the automatic pin setting machine was slow to catch on. Pin setting apparatuses, such as John Kilburn’s 1908 invention (US Patent 882,008), were early attempts to mechanize the process. Before mechanization, humans did the pins setting, typically young men. Not only was this terribly inefficient, the work was tiring, gritty, and low-paid. Subsequent patents by Kilburn in 1911, 1917, and later years were not adopted, but in 1941, Gottfried “Fred” Schmidt of Pearl River, New York, patented a bowling pin setting apparatus (US Patent 2,208,605) and a suction lifter (US Patent 2,247,787). As Schmidt noted in his patent application, previous apparatuses did not work satisfactorily because they “could not accurately spot the pins or engage with the pins left standing.” Schmidt would know.  A bowler himself, he received twelve patents for bowling pin setting apparatuses. All of Schmidt’s patents were assigned to the Bowling Patents Management Corporation, which was later purchased by American Machine & Foundry Company (AMF) thus giving AMF the patent rights to manufacture and use the technology. AMF was no stranger to diversification or tackling mechanization projects. In 1900, the company made tobacco manufacturing machinery; in the 1920s, bread wrapping machines; and in the 1930s necktie making machines. Bowling fit right in with their plans.

Photograph, American Bowling Congress Tournament, Fort Worth, Texas, 1957 March. (AC0823-0000002)

Photograph, American Bowling Congress Tournament, Fort Worth, Texas, 1957 March. (AC0823-0000002)

Photograph, American Bowling Congress Tournament (showing machinery), Fort Worth, Texas, 1957 March. (AC0823-0000003)

Photograph, American Bowling Congress Tournament (showing machinery), Fort Worth, Texas, 1957 March. (AC0823-0000003)

The pinspotter weighed 2,000 pounds and operated at a speed of seven to ten games per hour—depending on the speed of the bowler. The machine had eight principle assemblies: the cushion (stops the ball); the ball lift (carries the ball high enough to allow a gravity return); the sweep (removes deadwood from the alley); the carpet (carries pins from the alley into the pin elevator); the pin elevator (wheel that carries the pins and delivers them to the distributor); the distributor (takes pins from the elevator wheel and delivers them to the table); the table (location where the pins are spotted for the next frame); and the electrical system (selects the cycle for the machine to perform). After a bowler released the ball and knocked pins down, the rack above the pins came down and using a suction cup, picked up any pins left standing.  A bar then dropped down and swept away the fallen pins (aka “deadwood”). The fallen pins then moved onto a pit conveyor belt and were fed into a moving cylinder that carried them to the top of the machine. The pins, still held in place by suction were reset onto the alley and the bowler’s ball was returned to them via a conveyor belt mechanism. Finally, pins were set back (spotted) into place and the process could begin again.

Ticket for Bellevue Bowling Club Masquerade, 1900 January 20 (AC0060-0001483-01)

Ticket for Bellevue Bowling Club Masquerade, 1900 January 20 (AC0060-0001483-01)

Ticket, Bellevue Bowling Club Masquerade, 1900 January 20 (AC0060-0001483-02)

Ticket, Bellevue Bowling Club Masquerade, 1900 January 20 (AC0060-0001483-02)

In 1946, AMF unveiled the new pin setter, known as the Automatic Pinspotter (Model 82-30), to the public during the American Bowling Congress (ABC) Tournament in Buffalo, New York.  AMF was unable to demonstrate their machine at the tournament itself, so they set-up their new machine in a nearby building to promote its efficiency. Not until 1952 would the Pinspotter be ready for prime time and have finally gained acceptance. By 1958, AMF had leased 40,000 pinspotters, truly mechanizing bowling centers across the United States.

So, if you haven’t bowled lately, get out there and roll a few games!

Sources

New York Times, “40,000th Pinspotter: American Machine & Foundry Marks Bowling Aid Leasing,”  June 22, 1958, page F2.

New York Times, “Diversification for Growth and Stability…Horizons Unlimited for AMF—Serving the Consumer, Industry and Defense,” November 4, 1956, page 376.

Inventing on Wisconsin’s Waterways

I grew up in Wisconsin, a place well known for its waters and woods. It seems like you can’t go more than a few miles before running into a stream, pond, or lake. But little did I know that the waterways I grew up on were the same as those of an inventor and were the inspiration for his invention.

Ole Evinrude emigrated to Wisconsin in 1882 when he was five, growing up in Cambridge, WI, on the shores of Lake Ripley. Like Ole, I also grew up in Cambridge, went swimming and fishing in the lake, and enjoyed meals along its shore.

Sunset over a Wisconsin lake.

Sunset over a Wisconsin lake. By peterrieke (Balsam Lake Sunset) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.

Cambridge is about thirty minutes from Madison, so I spent plenty of time not just at Lake Ripley but also on the four lakes the capital is built around. Ole spent plenty of time in Madison too, gaining experience with machinery from various positions in machine shops. In addition to his hands-on experience, he used the university’s library to teach himself advanced mathematics, mechanics, and engineering. After briefly working in Pittsburgh—where he had first hand experience working with steel—he returned to Wisconsin for positions building engines.

Both of my parents grew up in Milwaukee and most of my family lives still lives there. Ole moved to that city to work and began building his own engines during his spare time in the basement of his boarding house. All the times that I drove to and from Milwaukee (about an hour past lakes and woods) I never guessed that the blue waters of Lake Okauchee that I saw from the road was the site of an event that got Ole thinking about using his homemade engines to power boats in a new way. On an outing on Lake Okauchee, Ole, his future wife Bess, and some friends rowed their boat across the lake. They bought some ice cream that they intended to take back across the lake with them but it melted by the time they reached the other side of lake, two miles away). This inspired Evinrude’s idea to clamp a motor to the stern of a boat.

Although forms of outboard motors for boats had existed since 1896, and had even been patented in 1905, in 1907 Evinrude designed the first commercially and mechanically successful outboard motor. His outboard motor had a mechanical arrangement that became the standard for all outboard motors.

Outboard motor patent drawing.

Patent drawing for “Marine Propulsion Mechanism” by Ole Evinrude.

Evinrude tested his invention on the nearby Kinnikinnic River. Having myself canoed on the Kinniknnic on many occasions, with its mix of forested, beach, rock, and house lined shores, I can easily picture Ole’s first trial. Without a muffler, when the motor started it was so noisy that it brought dozens of people to the river bank. It obviously needed a little tweaking before being sold, but Ole was able to go about five miles per hour. Ole’s first motors (built in 1909) were all hand-built, weighed 62 pounds, and had two horsepower. They sold quickly and in 1910 Ole had nearly 1,000 orders. By inventing the first commercially and mechanically successful outboard motor Ole forever altered the boating world. Outboard motors can be easily removed for repairs, storage, or use on other boats. Can you imagine a world without water skiing or motor boat racing?

After World War I, Ole utilized new techniques and processes of using aluminum to develop a lighter (48 pounds), two-cylinder, three horsepower outboard motor. He also invented a quieter underwater exhaust system. This new motor was on the market in 1920. Over the years Ole continued to develop lighter motors with greater horsepower.

1910 and 1924 outboard motors.

Evinrude’s 1910 and 1924 motors. Courtesy NMAH Archives Center.

Wisconsin is known for its waters and woods. Growing up in a place where a body of water nearly is never far away is not only beautiful and enjoyable but inspiring. Ole Evinrude designed the outboard motor we use today, but perhaps Ole would have invented a motor for an entirely different purpose if hadn’t been surrounded by the waterways that we both grew up on.