The Hole Story: A History of Skee-Ball

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In the early 1900s, the thing Joseph Fourestier Simpson desired most was to create something people respected. A career hustler—real estate agent, cash register salesman, and railroad clerk were just a few of the many jobs he held—Simpson longed to invent something he could patent that would have lasting appeal.

A handful of his inventions made minor waves: He perfected an egg crate that could protect shells during bumpy transportation routes, and created a new kind of trunk clasp that kept luggage tightly shut. None of it made him rich, but one invention in particular would at least gain him some national recognition. It was a ramp that could be set up in arcades and amusement parks, a kind of modified form of bowling that allowed players to lob a wooden ball over a bump and into a hole with a pre-assigned point value. He dubbed it Skee-Ball after the skee (ski) hills—and especially the ski jumps—that were then becoming popular in American culture.

Simpson filed for a patent in 1907 and received it in 1908. Later, he would see his Skee-Ball become a popular and pervasive attraction along the Atlantic City Boardwalk, in Philadelphia, and across the country. But Simpson wouldn’t see any profit from it. In fact, he'd suffer financial ruin. Even worse, history would become muddled to the point where most people wouldn’t even realize it was Simpson who had invented it.

Historic Images - Lancashire via Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Up until recently, it was common for accounts of Skee-Ball’s history to name Princeton University alumnus J. Dickinson Este as the man behind the game. As the story goes, Este was motivated to find an inventive birthday gift for his son in 1909 and decided to craft an alley for a small, handheld ball using lumber he had obtained from his father’s successful wood business, and Skee-Ball was born.

The problem? Virtually none of it appears to be true. According to Thaddeus Cooper and Kevin Kreitman, co-authors of the recently-released Seeking Redemption: The Real Story of the Beautiful Game of Skee-Ball, Este was the beneficiary of Simpson’s innovation, but not the innovator. The authors cite their five years of research into the game’s origins and a key discovery at New Jersey's Vineland Historical and Antiquarian Society, where, among other papers, Simpson’s 1908 patent for the machine resides.

“The history has become really muddled, at least on the internet,” Cooper tells Mental Floss. “Este, for one thing, didn’t have a son in 1909. He had twin daughters, much later on.”

Accounts seem to have conflated two different events: Simpson’s invention and Este’s later acquisition of the Skee-Ball business. After Simpson noticed the amusements industry taking off, he invented and patented the device; he and his partners, John Harper and William Nice, started marketing it to potential operators. None of the men were marketers, however, and they were never quite able to adopt the kind of salesmanship nor the resources needed to make Skee-Ball a household term. “It was your typical start-up problem,” Kreitman says. “They had the idea but not the money.”


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Simpson’s pockets ran dry; by 1911, he had even lost his house and was staying with friends. Este, who had been playing and enjoying the game in Philadelphia, rented some space near Princeton and installed a handful of alleys. When he saw that students were tripping over themselves to play, he decided to make a substantial investment—about $30,000 to $50,000 in today’s dollars—in the game. By 1914, he owned all rights and began an aggressive marketing effort using his wealthy family’s connections in the Pennsylvania news media.

“It was aggressive,” Cooper says. “You’d see ads with actual photographs, which was rare for amusement ads at the time. The copy would say something like, ‘Everybody is playing. Where have you been?’”

The hard sell worked. Soon, outlets like The New York Times were taking notice of the Skee-Ball craze spreading from the east coast. Co-ed tournaments sprung up; in Atlantic City, people seemed to be enjoying it a little too much, with the city clamping down on “noisy amusements” operating on Sundays.

Still, Skee-Ball was becoming a hit, thanks in part to a key design change prompted during the Depression. Originally built with a 32- to 36-foot-long ramp, the machines were cleaved in half so operators could fit the alleys into smaller, more affordable venues (10 feet is now the standard length). Not having to launch the ball such a long distance helped attract more kids to the game, who—along with adults—were plunking down an endless stream of nickels so they could get their nine balls and attempt to sink them. Prizes or tickets redeemable for prizes would be awarded to winners.

By this point, Este had exited the amusements business, selling his interest to his partners. By 1935, Skee-Ball was under the Wurlitzer umbrella. The jukebox maker had realized that Simpson’s device was outperforming their music libraries in several locations.

“They thought they would make a killing,” Kreitman tells Mental Floss. “They ramped up production and produced 5000 machines in 1937 alone.”

What Wurlitzer didn’t quite realize was that the machines made in the decades prior were so durable that they rarely needed replacing. “It took them about seven years to sell their stock,” Kreitman says.

Ownership changed again in 1945, when the Philadelphia Toboggan Company purchased Skee-Ball, and didn’t pass to other hands until 1985, when a businessman named Joe Sladek purchased it. Each owner has pursued Skee-Ball as a result of its considerable longevity and appeal, even though some local administrations have occasionally taken issue with the devices and their loose flirtation with gambling.

“I know at some point in Chicago some cops came in and chopped Skee-Ball machines apart with axes, then tossed them out the back door,” Cooper says.

Ryan Basilio via Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Remarkably, Skee-Ball has remained largely unchanged for the past 110 years. Cooper says that Simpson’s early concept designs strongly resemble today's machines. It’s still a very analog experience: Pitch the ball, and hope you hit a high-scoring target.

In 2016, Skee-Ball changed hands once more, this time to the Bay-Tek company. It’s estimated that more than 125,000 machines are in operation today, with many locations organizing loose tournaments. Brewskee-Ball has made a name for itself as a leading competition league. Players can—and usually do—drink while playing, with winners receiving a cream-colored jacket and trophy as proof of their Skee-Ball prowess. Like roller derby participants, they favor colorful player names like Brewbacca and Monica LewinSkee and play during “skeesons.” (Back in March, Brewbacca was the focus of an ABC News digital feature.)

While some machines dating back to the 1940s are still in operation in a few locations, Cooper says he and Kreitman have yet to come across any of the original models from either Simpson or Este.

Simpson died in 1930, living long enough to see Skee-Ball become a popular pastime but unable to reap the financial rewards he had worked so hard to try and achieve.

“He was 57 when he invented it,” Kreitman says. “He saw the success, but never saw the financial benefits.”

The Official Scrabble Dictionary Just Added 300 New Words, Including Sriracha, Bitcoin, and Twerk

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Scrabble fans know that game nights can get heated—especially when they're working with an outdated dictionary. Now, NPR reports that Merriam-Webster has added 300 new words to the official player's dictionary that are sure to anger the Scrabble purists in your family.

While Merriam-Webster is regularly adding new words its general dictionary, its editors are more selective when it comes to updating its list of playable Scrabble words. New editions are only published once or twice a decade, with the previous version coming out in 2014.

The release of the latest sixth edition includes plenty of terms that are products of the internet age. The words emoji, listicle, bestie, and twerk are now all fair game. Several trendy foods, like macaron, aquafaba, bibimbap, and sriracha, also made it onto the list. Strategic players will likely be happy to see the additions of the words qapik—a type of currency in Azerbaijan and also one of the few playable U-less Q words in Scrabble—and ew, one of only 106 two-letter words in the game's dictionary.

For more highlights from the update, check out the list below.

1. Frowny
2. Bestie
3. Bizjet
4. Qapik
5. Ew
6. Twerk
7. Arancini
8. Beatdown
9. Zomboid
10. Emoji
11. Sriracha
12. Facepalm
13. Bitcoin
14. Aquafaba
15. Hivemind
16. Listicle
17. Bibimbap
18. Puggle
19. Macaron
20. Sheeple
21. Yowza
22. Bokeh

[h/t NPR]

Predicting This Year's 10 Most Popular Halloween Costumes

Margot Robbie stars in I, Tonya (2017)
Margot Robbie stars in I, Tonya (2017)
NEON

Odes to ‘80s ice skating icon Tonya Harding are slated to make an unlikely comeback. Thanks in large part to the 2017 biopic about Harding’s life (I, Tonya), we can expect to see quite a few Halloween revelers in bedazzled leotards and skirts this year.

There has also been a 43 percent spike in searches for scrunchies since August, according to fashion search platform Lyst, which teamed up with Pinterest to forecast the top 10 costume trends for Halloween this year. Searches and saves on both platforms—which are used by a combined total of 210 million monthly users—were analyzed to create this list.

“The data shows that consumers start searching, planning, and pinning their perfect Halloween outfit from as early as spring onwards—giving a pretty strong indication of what will be the most popular costume ideas ahead of time,” Lyst wrote in an online post.

The second most popular costume on the list: any of the characters from the hit show Riverdale—especially Betty and Jughead. Popular searches for clothing items on Lyst include fluffy pink sweatshirts, beanies, and fur-lined denim jackets.

Other costumes inspired by fictional characters include a warrior from Black Panther’s Wakanda, Edna Mode from the The Incredibles, and a Mamma Mia-inspired dancing queen (although these are based on actual ABBA costumes, of course).

Here’s the full top 10 list:

1. Tonya Harding
2. A Riverdale character
3. A 90’s icon
4. A warrior of Wakanda
5. A flamingo
6. Edna Mode
7. An ABBA-inspired dancing queen
8. A cosmic fairy
9. Frida Kahlo
10. A cow

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