THE PINBALL STORY had a few surprises (who knew it was a murder machine?), but the weirdest curveball might have been the game’s roots. You wouldn’t know it to stand inside an arcade today, but pinball has aristocratic origins — comically aristocratic.
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In 1777, 12 years before the French Revolution, the Comte d’Artois (brother to French King Louis XVI and brother-in-law to Marie Antoinette) threw a party to celebrate his new estate. He had it constructed in 63 days to win a speed-building bet with Antoinette — he probably wasn’t the workers’ favorite boss — and named it Château de Bagatelle, after the French for “trifle.”
The maison de plaisance was a monument to trifles and leisure: fake ruins, strictly ornamental peasants’ huts, an entire garden wall built to fall down as a gag for visitors, parties, etc. At the 1777 housewarming, guests (including the king and queen) played a new game. It was a little like billiards, but players shot cue balls up an inclined playfield and past pins, trying to get them into holes.
Antoinette allegedly liked the game. The host named it after his house, and bagatelle became wildly popular.
Time marched on: The French Revolution happened; Napoleon came and went; the French monarchy was briefly restored; and the Comte d’Artois, thanks to a few family executions along the way, became the unlikely, much-reviled King Charles X. His six-year reign is not noted for leisure or trifles. He censored the press, got real Catholic, reintroduced capital punishment for sacrilege, invaded Algeria (some say as a distraction from his awful rule) and tried to bring back the “royal touch” — the already-antiquated notion that a king could lay hands on his subjects to cure them of diseases.
That’s the progenitor of pinball. Doesn’t sound like the kind of guy who’d be very popular at the local arcade.