This arcade standard, a distant, distant relative of bowling, Skee-Ball was invented and patented in 1908 by Joseph Fourestier Simpson, a resident of Vineland, New Jersey.
Simpson licensed the game to John W Harper and William Nice Jr. who created the Skee-Ball Alley Company and began marketing the thirty-two-foot games in early 1909. In 1910, Jonathan Dickinson Este became enamoured of the game and in 1913 he helped Simpson and John W. Harper to revitalise the company.
In 1914, Este installed Skee-Ball in rented space on Atlantic City’s boardwalk, purchased the patent and all rights to the game from Simpson, incorporated The J D Este Company to build and market the game, and hired Harper as general manager.
By 1928, the games were shortened to lengths of fourteen feet, and later ten. The space-saving alleys made Skee-Ball accessible to more players and, therefore, much more popular.
Most penny arcades in the 1930s had a row of Skee-Ball machines and a loot-filled display case, offering precious toy bounty as a trade-in for the tickets that Skee-Ball machines dispensed to winners.
In those years, there were law enforcement officials who considered the likes of Skee-Ball and other coin-op games to be gambling mechanisms because they could award prizes. There were often restrictions put on the number of stalls an arcade could have, or worse, Skee-Ball would be banned from the arcades altogether.
But Coin-operated Skee-Ball soon became an arcade classic, and even if the prizes in the glass case were different, or there was no ticket dispenser at all, the basics of the game itself were virtually the same as they were in the 1920s: The nine wooden balls, often nicked up and battle-worn, still measured three and an eighth inches around, and still weighed about five ounces.
There was also the same click as the gate opened, and the balls were released from the stall’s nether regions and scooted down, like a timber centipede, into the alley on your right.
Once launched, your ball careened up the lane, over a hump, and (hopefully) up and into the scoring rings. The farther away the ring your ball landed in, the more points you got, but sneakily, the smaller the ring’s circumference.
Hitting those wee, high-point rings took more than a brute toss; it took patience and aim. Right down the centre . . . not too hard, not too soft. Find your rhythm, and the balls sank magically into that top ring, one after the other.
The Skee-Ball brand name has had many different owners over the years but has belonged to its newest family since 1985. Nowadays, there are several versions of the classic alley game, including the Mega Skee-Ball (a stand-alone game because of its large size) and Skee-Daddle (with the traditional alley set-up in miniature).