How Pearl Harbor Led to a War on Pinball

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Getty Images

On April 2, 1976, 28-year-old magazine editor Roger Sharpe stood before a pinball machine inside the New York City Council chambers, holding the future of the game in his hands. Pointing to a spot on the machine, he announced, “If I pull this plunger back just right, the ball will go down this center lane.” Pinball’s Babe Ruth was calling his shot. Sharpe pulled back the plunger and let the ball fly.

Back in 1933, by Prohibition’s end, temperance types had found a new target: pinball. One of the game’s biggest opponents was New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, who swept into office that year on an anti-gangster platform. Promising to “drive the bums out of town,” LaGuardia started by cracking down on mafia-run slot machines. When mobsters replaced slots with pinball machines, he waged a years-long campaign to ban those too.

To pinball novices, the game looked like a crapshoot, completely impervious to a player’s skill. The fact that some machines offered up to $2 payouts to winners only amplified the gambling confusion. In LaGuardia’s view, pinball picked the “pockets of schoolchildren in the form of nickels and dimes given them as lunch money."

LaGuardia’s crusade got a boost when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. With America at war, LaGuardia argued that pinball machines weren’t just a corrupting influence; they were artillery in camouflage, a waste of metal.

On January 21, LaGuardia got his wish. A Bronx court declared pinball to be gambling even when no money was at stake. Police rounded up 3,000 machines over three weeks of Prohibition-style raids.

War Machines

In newsreel-ready stunts LaGuardia smashed machines with a sledgehammer before the pieces were dumped into the city’s waterways. The New York Times headline read "Pinball Machines to Help Win War." The contribution was real. The military received 10,000 pounds of scrap metal courtesy of pinball machines, enough to make four 2,000-pound bombs. As for the machines’ legs, thousands were turned into billy clubs and distributed to police.

Within the span of a few years, pinball had been banished from communities across the country, including Los Angeles and Chicago, the heart of pinball culture. But just like the prohibition of alcohol, instead of stopping the game, the ban drove pinball underground into seedy places like sex shops. Hollywood even adopted pinball as a standard prop, using the machines to give street cred to rebellious characters.

It wasn’t until the late 1960s that pinball mounted a slow comeback. In 1974, Los Angeles overturned its ban. In 1975, the film adaptation of The Who’s Tommy, the story of a “pinball wizard” with “crazy flipper fingers,” renewed interest in the game. If kids couldn’t play Bally’s Tommy-themed pinball game in their hometown, they could at least see the movie.

When the New York City Council finally held a hearing to reconsider the decades-old pinball ban in April 1976, the game’s advocates asked Sharpe, an expert player, to prove that the game relied on skill and not chance. The GQ editor had learned to play in college and had honed his skills on contraband machines in New York. He would go on to literally write the book on the game, 1977’s effusively titled Pinball!

After he called his shot, with an entire courtroom watching, Sharpe sent the ball exactly where he’d pointed. It was a true skill shot: The council’s committee voted unanimously in pinball’s favor.

This article originally appeared last year in mental_floss magazine.

Why Are There No Snakes in Ireland?


Legend tells of St. Patrick using the power of his faith to drive all of Ireland’s snakes into the sea. It’s an impressive image, but there’s no way it could have happened.

There never were any snakes in Ireland, partly for the same reason that there are no snakes in Hawaii, Iceland, New Zealand, Greenland, or Antarctica: the Emerald Isle is, well, an island.

Eightofnine via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Once upon a time, Ireland was connected to a larger landmass. But that time was an ice age that kept the land far too chilly for cold-blooded reptiles. As the ice age ended around 10,000 years ago, glaciers melted, pouring even more cold water into the now-impassable expanse between Ireland and its neighbors.

Other animals, like wild boars, lynx, and brown bears, managed to make it across—as did a single reptile: the common lizard. Snakes, however, missed their chance.

The country’s serpent-free reputation has, somewhat perversely, turned snake ownership into a status symbol. There have been numerous reports of large pet snakes escaping or being released. As of yet, no species has managed to take hold in the wild—a small miracle in itself.

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Virginia Woolf Calls D.H. Lawrence and James Joyce 'Overrated' in Newly Unearthed 1923 Survey

James Joyce
James Joyce
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Don’t feel too bad if you’ve ever struggled to get through James Joyce’s Ulysses or one of D.H. Lawrence’s long-winded books. Virginia Woolf and several other well-respected writers of the 20th century had a few choice words for Joyce and Lawrence, labeling them the "most overrated" English writers in a recently rediscovered 1923 survey.

As Smithsonian reports, these thoughts were recorded in a journal that was passed around British literary circles that included Woolf and nine other writers in the early 20th century. Within the “literary burn book,” as Vox dubbed it, writers recorded their answers to a 39-question survey about their thoughts on popular writers of the time, both living and dead. For example, they were asked to choose the greatest literary genius of all time, as well as the author most likely to be read in 25 years’ time. (In response to the latter question, author and poet Hilaire Belloc simply answered, “Me.”)

Titled Really and Truly: A Book of Literary Confessions, the book eventually ended up in novelist Margaret Kennedy’s possession. It was recently rediscovered by her grandson, William Mackesy, who, along with his cousin, is one of the literary executors of Kennedy's estate.

“Within were pages of printed questions with 10 sets of handwritten answers dated between 1923 and 1927,” Mackesy explained in The Independent. “Then the names came into focus and our eyes popped. Here were Rose Macaulay, Rebecca West, Hilaire Belloc, Stella Benson—and Virginia Woolf. And our granny.” It's unclear who originally wrote the survey.

In addition to taking jabs at Lawrence and Joyce, one unnamed respondent called T.S. Eliot the worst living English poet as well as the worst living literary critic. In response to a prompt to name the dead author whose character they most disliked, the participants name-dropped Samuel Johnson, Oscar Wilde, George Meredith, Marcel Proust, and Lord Byron. Woolf, for her part, answered, “I like all dead men of letters.” (If the respondents had known about the misdeeds of Charles Dickens, he may have ended up on the list, as well.)

“It is interesting how perceptions change, especially how little mention there is of now-most-celebrated writers from that era,” Mackesy notes. This little activity wasn’t entirely petty, though. Shakespeare, unsurprisingly, won the most votes for greatest literary genius. Homer, author of The Iliad and The Odyssey, received one vote.

[h/t Smithsonian]