The Ted Zale Story
By Dr. Steven Doellefeld and Dennis Kriesel


For most residents of Chicago, May 14, 1901 was a nothing more than a beautiful, warm Spring day. For Boleslaw Zalewski and his young wife Anna (Wasielewski), it was a day of celebration as they welcomed their first child into the world—a son they named Thaddeus.

Boleslaw, a professional musician, was born near the border between Poland and Russia in 1876, and immigrated to the United States as a teen. His wife Anna was a first generation American, born in Nebraska, who married her husband soon after her 16th birthday. Boleslaw and Anna would go on to have three more children—Casimer, Sophia and Harriette—but it was Thaddeus who was destined for fame and fortune.

Young Thaddeus, known as ‘Thad’ to his family and friends, had an apparently uneventful childhood, growing up in a large apartment building that would today probably be described as a tenement. He was whip-smart though, and managed to make his way into college, at least for a year, in an era when most children from working class families simply did not have that option available to them. In his early 20s, he married Muriel Kirsch, and in 1925 they had their only child (Robert). Sometime between 1920 and 1930, he decided to change his last name from the decidedly ethnic Zalewski to the andro-ethnic ‘Zale’, and at some point ‘Thad’ became ‘Ted’, though he continued to use Thad for legal purposes for the rest of his life.

Ted and his young family were wanderers in the early 1930s—likely attributable to efforts to find work, and lived in no less than five cities between 1930 and 1934, doing whatever work he could find, including stints as an attendant, printer, restaurateur and in sales. By 1934, the marriage between Thad and Muriel had failed. He returned to Chicago, while she moved to Chickasha, Oklahoma with young Robert. Buying a home on Kingston Avenue, Ted settled into a career as a commercial printer, and by 1940 was the manager of the plant. Now approaching 40, Ted was soon to make a move that would be life changing, and though he never sought out the camera or the limelight, he was about to become famous anyway.

The Pre-Bally Years

While Zale is of course best known for his illustrious tenure at Bally Manufacturing Corporation, much of his early career and details of his life remain a mystery.

It appears Zale’s start in amusement devices was actually with Genco Manufacturing Company. It is not yet known exactly when Zale actually started with Genco, other than it was sometime after 1940 (perhaps that information has been forever lost, though we may be able to narrow that date some when the 1950 U.S. Census records are released in 2022). While he may have had a hand in pinball game development, it is clear that he spent most of his time at Genco working on ‘gun game’ designs, and scored his first patent (2,899,205) on a gun game. His Genco tenure lasted until the company closed in July 1958 (ironically, the patent wasn’t issued until 1959, after Genco had closed).

Zale joined Bally in mid-1962. What Zale did for employment between July of 1958 and 1962 is not entirely clear. One working hypothesis is that Zale joined the newly formed Midway Manufacturing Company upon their startup in 1958, and with the closure of Genco (and the two factories existing only blocks apart from one another) this would be an obvious transition option. Midway’s gun games are quite similar in operation to the games Zale worked on with Genco, which would make sense if he were doing them. However, the Midway records are scant and those that are publicly available during the early years are silent on much of the company’s design efforts. Perhaps there is an archive of extant Midway documents out there, but if it exists, the authors have been unable to locate them.

Regardless, by late 1962, citing frustration with a company that was “hopelessly conservative in outlook”, the 61-year-old Zale moved on and secured a job as the Director of Design at Bally, as Bally returned to the pinball market in earnest after having built mostly slot machines, bingo machines, novelty games (such as 1960’s “Skill Score”) and only dabbling with a handful of flippered pinballs in the prior 20 years.

Zale’s Near-Early Departure from Bally

Zale’s time at Bally—and Bally’s return to the pinball market— were both nearly short-lived.

Back in 1958 the founder of Bally Manufacturing Corporation, Ray Moloney, passed away.

Billboard from 3rd March, 1958
Billboard reports from 3rd March, 1958

The company continued to limp along for a few years, haemorrhaging money and selling off a number of assets, but by early 1963 things were pretty dire and the company was put up for sale.

Recently, a note from the Steve Kordek archives has surfaced and it indicates that on June 18th of that year, Zale placed a phone call to Kordek at rival pinball manufacturer Williams. Presumably, Zale and Kordek knew each other from their time at Genco. Zale told Kordek that all of the engineers had been laid off three weeks before, and that the new owners were supposed to have closed the deal to buy the company the previous Saturday. That closing did not happen and Zale was likely concerned about being let go, and though the note does not say it explicitly, he may have been fishing for a job at Williams.

Steve Kordek's note of his conversation with Ted Zale (Credit: Duncan Brown)
Steve Kordek’s note of his conversation with Ted Zale (Courtesy of Duncan Brown)

That closing did finally happen a couple of weeks later, and a group of investors that included long time Bally Sales Manager Bill O’Donnell took over the company. O’Donnell was named President and he quickly increased the emphasis on building slot machines and other casino games, moving away from the bowlers, bingos and novelty games.

Billboard article from 6th July, 1963
Billboard article from 6th July, 1963

The pinball division was more or less left to its own devices, and with Zale at the helm began to crank out new titles at an astronomical rate.

Zale’s Pinball Pioneering

Zale was prolific in regards to his pinball designs, quickly carrying Bally’s efforts to become a serious player in the pinball realm (rather than their historic focus on novelty and bingo games) and leading them to the forefront of the industry. At the peak of his creative productivity, he was turning out a new game once every six weeks on average—and he did not simply recycle old layout and mechanisms with new artwork.

During this time he also pioneered a lot of interesting pinball concepts (some of which caught on, some of which were just notable ‘firsts’ in the industry). Noteworthy examples of Zale’s innovations include:

  • While not the first to use 50 volts to power solenoids (Williams Electronic Manufacturing Company used that voltage earlier, albeit intermittently), Zale was the first to standardize at that voltage
  • Zale standardized the voltage used by motors and transformers at 110 volts (U.S.)/220 volts (Europe)
  • Star-Jet (Bally, 1963) was the first pin with three-ball multiball
  • Cross Country (Bally, 1963) was the first pin with a passive ‘free ball’ gate
  • Hootenanny (Bally, 1963) was the first pin with an active ‘free ball’ gate
  • Hootenanny was also the first game to feature what is considered to be the modern mushroom bumper
  • Grand Tour (Bally, 1964) was the first pin with butterfly rollovers
  • Big Day (Bally, 1964) was the first pin to normalize the asymmetrical playfield
  • Wild Wheels (Bally, 1966) was the first pin with score reels used in the playfield
  • Six Sticks (Bally, 1966) was the first production pin to allow six players
  • Loop the Loop (Bally, 1966) was the first modern pin to use a non-standard ball launch
  • Bazaar (Bally, 1966) was the first pin to use ‘zipper flippers’, an invention he employed on numerous other pins, and that was copied by Williams on games like Daffy and Student Prince
  • Dogies (Bally, 1968) was the first pin to use the ‘little pill’ rollover
  • Nip-It (Bally, 1973) used his ‘Balligator’ invention, a form of ball catch
  • Fireball (Bally, 1972) was the first pin to use spinning discs on the playfield – a feature that still turns up from time to time, most recently in 2017’s Pirates of the Caribbean from Jersey Jack Pinball
Partial playfield photo of Wild Wheels (Bally, 1966), the first pin with score reels within the playfield rather than just the backglass (Photo courtesy of Tom Rader)
Partial playfield photo of Wild Wheels (Bally, 1966), the first pin with score reels within the playfield rather than just the backglass (Photo courtesy of Tom Rader)

Zale and Pinball Art

Pinball and its associated art go hand-in-hand, and given the prolific design approach Zale took he had a lot of different artists (at least seven) involved with his pin projects.

Below is a chart providing a series of pinball artists and the number of Zale projects with which they were involved.

The number of Zale projects various pinball artists worked on - note the high quantity without a credited artist
The number of Zale projects various pinball artists worked on – note the high quantity without a credited artist

As the chart indicates, a significant plurality of Zale pins did not credit any specific artist with the design work. It remains one of the more significant mysteries of Zale’s time with Bally.

Here is another chart, looking at the information a different way: chronologically. As it reveals, most of the unknown artist games were in the earlier years of Zale’s tenure at Bally (notably 1963 through 1966).

The number of Zale pins by year and involved artist - most of the unknown artist games appear during the 1963-1966 time-frame
The number of Zale pins by year and involved artist – most of the unknown artist games appear during the 1963-1966 time-frame

Advertising Poster Company (also known as Ad Posters, which did a lot of pinball art) is credited in the case of the unknown artist(s), but not the specific individual(s) involved. Zale, incidentally, did have a background in commercial printing before he entered the coin-op industry, so perhaps he had a prior professional relationship with Ad Posters in his past?

Zale’s Retirement & Continuing Design Work

In yet another mini-mystery, it is not entirely clear when exactly Zale retired from Bally. Protégé Jim Patla estimates it was around 1970, based on Patla’s own start with Bally around 1965 and his recollection that he studied under Zale for five years. This estimate seems reasonable, as a 1973 article in Tropic Magazine mentions that Zale had retired from Bally several years earlier.

However, retirement did not mean for Zale what it means for most. He and his third wife, Inda, relocated to Arkansas, but he kept designing games and sending them in to Bally (not dissimilar to how Harry Williams continued to provide designs to Williams Manufacturing after his own departure from that company). Joust (Bally, 1969), Vampire (Bally, 1971) and Double-Up (Bally, 1970) are three examples of Zale games that Patla indicated were sent in post-retirement. Joust’s release date suggests it was slightly before 1970 that Zale formally left Bally, but no records have been found to confirm his actual departure.

Uncredited Zale Games & Other Unknowns

As prolific as he was, it is quite surprising how scant the historical record is and how many mysteries regarding his career persist to this day.

For example, we are still left with the question of whether any games were released featuring his design work but not credited to him, as Bally did with other designers. A good case-in-point example involves Harry Williams, as records indicate he submitted games he titled Samoa and Bali-Hi to Bally, which were produced with little variation as Sea Ray (Bally, 1971) and Bali-Hi (Bally, 1973), respectively (both ultimately credited to Zale, incidentally).

Examples that could have been based around Zale designs are 4 Queens (Bally, 1970), a game credited to Patla (though Patla noted in an interview that he was given Zale’s game and made modifications to it, as part of his training as a designer) and Ro Go (Bally, 1974), a game credited to Greg Kmiec (Kmiec stated in an interview that Zale sent in the Ro Go design to Bally). Could there be others?

Backglass and playfield of Star-Jet (Bally, 1963), the first pin with 3-ball multiball (Photo courtesy of Jeff Frick)
Backglass and playfield of Star-Jet (Bally, 1963), the first pin with 3-ball multiball
(Photo courtesy of Jeff Frick)

Aside from uncredited game designs and the aforementioned mystery artist(s) who worked on Zale games, there are a number of other interesting unknowns involving Zale. Most notably, that no publicly available photo of Zale exists at this time, but there are also a number of other interesting questions centering around his coin-op work.

– When did Zale start with Genco? He made gun games with them and it is believed he stayed until Genco closed, but it isn’t clear how long that tenure was.

– What did Zale do after leaving Genco and before joining Bally? As noted earlier, one theory is that he joined Midway (which would have been starting up around the time Genco closed its doors) and helped them with gun games, but no documentation has been found to confirm this.

– What did Zale do for work before joining Genco? Did he work for Ad Posters? Perhaps for Ad Posters rival Reproductions Company who were also doing work for many of the pinball companies in this same time period?

Perhaps the answers to many of these questions are out there, in some archives that have heretofore remained inaccessible publicly.

Regardless, what we do know of Zale is he was a pioneering innovator when it came to pinball design – prolific in output and willing to take risks – and led a company from being basically uninvolved in pinball into its status as one of the three largest manufacturers of pinball games in the world.

His legacy in pinball is felt today, and though many in the hobby may not know the name Zale, it warrants the same consideration and respect commanded by names like Kordek, Lawlor, Ritchie and Williams.

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  1. Nicholas Baldridge

    12th March, 2018 at 7:22pm

    I would suggest that perhaps Zale cannot be credited with the inclusion of 50V circuitry and standardized 110V transformers in their flipper games – for many years prior to Zale’s start at the company, Bally had been using this improved process and transformer setup in their bingo pinballs. I suspect that the push to use the bingo transformers in flipper games came from the engineering or accounting department and was not a requirement from Zale.

    Bally was unique in that they made a lot of their own parts – items like fuse holders, lamp sockets, and Jones Plugs. In these instances, their use in the flipper games were probably not the mandate of a designer.

    I am always interested to learn of how the curtain between the gaming division and the amusement division was parted, though.

    Thank you for the article!


  2. Steven Doellefeld

    13th March, 2018 at 2:52pm

    Hi Nicholas– Glad you enjoyed the article.

    I agree with you in part. It’s not as though Zale *invented* the notion of using the 50v circuit in games. As we mentioned in the article, 50v was used to power solenoids on some Williams games (and probably other manufacturers as well). As you rightly pointed out in our Facebook conversation, Bally used 50v in many bingo games before Zale even arrived with the company.

    You’re probably right that the push to incorporate them into the pinball games came from accounting or engineering– nonetheless, the fact remains that Zale was the one who standardized on the 50v solenoid for pinball.

    I base this claim primarily on an article entitled “Bally Introduces Motor to Standardize Games” from the December 7th 1963 Billboard (I apologize– I don’t know how to hotlink these pages, but you can get to it via Google Books). Also, Bally references the 50v usage as a selling point in the flyers for Moon Shot (2/1963), Hootenanny (11/1963), and specifically defines it as a new standard feature in the flyer for Star Jet (12/1963). It was also used on Cue Tease (7/1963), but not advertised as a selling feature. We have flyers for 3-in-Line and Cross Country which also came in between Moon Shot and Star Jet… the flyers don’t advertise 50v, and I was unable to track down a schematic for either, but it’s entirely plausible that they had 50v as well.

    Either way, it’s clear that Bally standardized first, and that Zale was designing machines with a 50v solenoid circuit from his arrival with the company.


  3. David Kilderry

    25th April, 2018 at 1:56pm

    Interesting read.

    My guess is Ted probably stayed on with Genco after the sale. The Gensburg Bros sold out to their other brother Sam, and Sam Wolberg at Chicago Coin. Reports at the time suggested that Genco games would still be made under the Chicago Coin brand but there was no mention of the imminent closure of the Genco plant. When it did close is uncertain, but perhaps Ted stayed on with Chicago Coin for a time?


  4. Mary Beth Young

    14th May, 2019 at 4:57am

    Ted Zale was my Aunt Inda Young’s husband and consequently my uncle. We remember Uncle Ted and Aunt Inda coming from Niles, IL to Sunday dinner at our house in South Milwaukee. WI. He kept all 5 of us kids entertained with his pantomimes of sewing his fingers together or to his pant leg. During the mid to late 50’s he would bring some of his latest inventions usually made of foam rubber. Today these items can be found in every dollar store, but back them they were wonderful items and all Uncle Ted needed was someone to back him financially. I think my dad, his brother law, was too conservative to get involved but we sure loved all those gadgets. Within a few years, these same items began to appear on the market, but not brought to market by Uncle Ted for lack of funding.
    We never really knew too much about the Bally job except that he was never pensioned when his eye sight started failing. He remained on full salary until his death. Bally also made him a workshop trailer and installed it for him behind his Mt Home, AK home. And they only asked that he come into the Bally office in Chicago a few times per year(1-2 at the most) and share his ideas. Aunt Inda accompanied him and said employees lined up and applauded him when he walked in. He was a real character and loosing his eyesight was the worst of ironies. My Aunt had to learn to drive at age 72 just so they could remain independent in their retirement for a bit longer.


    • Pinball News

      17th May, 2019 at 2:46pm

      This is fantastic. Thank you so much for sharing your memories of your Uncle Ted and reminding us of his wonderfully inventive talent.


    • Steven Doellefeld

      27th October, 2019 at 1:31am

      Mary Beth- if you should happen to come upon this again, I would love to chat with you about your uncle— and I’d love to be able to update this article with a photo if you had one that you’d be willing to share.


    • Dennis Kriesel

      28th October, 2019 at 12:02pm

      Fascinating, thanks for writing in!

      One of the (many) items we’ve not been able to source is a photo of Ted Zale. Should you see this reply in the future, and ever happen to have one you’d be willing to share, so many (most!) in the pinball community have no idea what he even looks like!


  5. Steve Ritchie

    23rd May, 2019 at 10:00pm

    Great article! Special thanks to Steve, Dennis, and Mary Beth! I learned a lot more than I ever knew about Ted.

    Ted Zale was a pinball visionary, and is not often recognized for his many inventive achievements. I had no idea what games he had done when I was young, (I was born in 1950), but I knew that I loved playing Four Million BC, Fireball, Ro Go and others while my parents bowled in a league. Ted was doing what no one else had done. His games were different from any other designers of the day, and they influenced me.

    Once I had become a game designer, I learned who Ted was. I always wanted to know more about him. I spoke to Steve Kordek about him in the late 70’s, and it was apparent they were friends. I could tell Steve respected him, but not much more was said. Ted was a brilliant inventor, and I loved Zipper Flippers and his other devices. I wish I could have met him, but my time was a bit later.

    Fireball is an amazing game. We had one at Atari, and played it hundreds of times. It just never gets old. As Atarians, we were working with solid state pinball hardware. Fireball was an EM game, and it weighed a ton! We opened up the game and lifted the playfield to see what was in there. It was loaded wall-to-wall with relays and score motors. It had to have been very difficult for Ted to create the game’s action and rules with Fireball’s complexity. Fireball is a masterpiece as far as I am concerned.

    Electronics and computers powering modern pinball created a designers’ & programmers’ heaven! Today, when you trace the wires from the main PC board to the ends of all the wires, they are still connected to nearly the same technology as was available to Ted and others from that era; solenoids, lights, switches, magnets & motors. We have it much easier, and that’s a good thing. We can experiment and design on a higher level. Ted designed great games without this benefit, and that is a huge pinball achievement.


    • Pinball News

      31st May, 2019 at 4:38pm

      Great insights, Steve. Thanks for sharing them with us.


    • Steven Doellefeld

      27th October, 2019 at 1:32am


      Thank you for the kind words and memories. I’m really flattered that you not only read our article, but took the time to comment.


    • Dennis Kriesel

      28th October, 2019 at 12:04pm

      Thanks for the feedback, I’m glad you enjoyed the article! Zale’s work is fascinating and the only EM I’m currently looking for is one of his zipper flipper designs (Cosmos or 4 Million B.C. ideally). He was a designer I didn’t initially know much about, so it was a lot of fun to hear Steven’s presentation and to work on writing something up about him and his contributions to the industry.


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