I always enjoyed playing pinball when I was a kid. Usually it was at the fish and chip shop with my Dad while we were waiting for the food. Later in High School it was up at the local shop after school, playing an EM Surf Champ with school mates.
Over the years I’d always put a coin in a machine when I saw one. In 2005 I bought an old Williams EM Spanish Eyes machine which had had a possum living in it. I was able to get it working enough for the playfield coils to operate and to be able to play a ball. Our little kids enjoyed that machine but none of the scoring or non-GI lights worked. I have to admit that what was inside the cabinet was incomprehensible to me! After a couple of years I sold that machine to a guy who understood EMs and wanted to restore it. As he drove off I remember feeling disappointed with myself that I hadn’t been able to make more progress.
I kept on reading about pinball machines and playing them when I got a chance. In late 2019 I decided to buy an early solid-state machine I could work on. At that time, I didn’t know anything about Pinside and absolutely nothing about homebrew approaches to controlling machines, like Cobra Pin, Mission Pinball Framework, FAST and P-ROC. I'd trained as an electrical engineer after high school and understand electrical circuits but my only programming experience had been in Borland Turbo Pascal (that's how long ago it was).
I kept looking on ebay and gumtree and a machine came up for sale that caught my interest. It was a 1978 Stern Memory Lane solid state machine.
What was for sale though was just the bottom cabinet and the populated playfield and glass. There were no boards, no legs, no lockdown bar, no backbox, no spinners, and also it was “protected” with a layer of mylar, which in my ignorance I guessed must be a good thing. Critically though, it was a round trip of 2,300 kms (1430 miles) from Brisbane, where we live to the seller and back.
I called the seller and bought it. On the positive side, the playfield looked to be in good condition and all the plastics were present and all good. Also the chime box was present and a big, big plus was that the cable looms were intact. The sale price was AU$500, which at that time was equivalent to about US$340.
My son was on his learner license and he did most of the driving to get his learner hours up. After we’d driven about 5hrs we had to stop because bush fires had broken out along the highway south. We swung west to get around them. I left my son overnight with my brother and his family in Sydney and headed down to Ulludulla to pick up the machine. We finally got home but only after a driving a long way inland over small country roads and through acres of burned out grasslands and trees. The machine, i.e. the bottom cabinet with populated playfield, lay like a coffin, in the back of the station wagon as we rolled along. It was well and truly dead and I remember thinking to myself “are you kidding yourself that you’ll get that thing going?”
After I got the machine home I was stumped as to how to get started on it. I didn’t realize that the playfield switches were part of a switch matrix (whatever that was). I tried to do continuity checks with a multi-meter and I couldn’t make sense of what was going on. Things got busy at work and months slipped by with nothing happening to the machine.
During that time I read about off-the-shelf boards that were available, such as Alltek Systems controller, light and solenoid boards. I told myself that if I couldn’t design my own electronics then ultimately I’d get those boards. As it turned out though I managed to get it going myself.
The pandemic started and I decided I’d have to make some progress.
It was an exciting day when I was able to remotely operate the pop bumpers and flippers.
Since then, I’ve put many, many hours into building a control system (initially with an Arduino Due but now with a Raspberry Pi Pico), LED displays, power supply and driver board.
My wife helped me to remove the Mylar and was great with color-matching to touch up the playfield before wet sanding and clear coating.
I built a backbox and got a beautiful backglass from Steve at BGresto.
While the machine is still a work in progress, it’s “alive” again and it’s brought a lot of fun into our house. I play it every day and often play it with our kids or my wife.
Both my son and daughter, who are young adults now, ask to play it and sometimes go with me to play at a local pinball bar. I think pinball is a hobby that offers so many different challenges.
Whether you’re artistic, or technical, or competitive or social, there’s sure to be an aspect of it that will challenge, fascinate and entertain you. I’m grateful that there’s a Pinside community and I'm looking forward to finishing (if that's ever possible) this project and getting on to my next machine!