A busy bowling alley might seem noisy, but behind the lanes the cacophony is significantly louder. As the heavy balls crash into the wooden pins, hefty motors, conveyor belts, pulleys and cams clatter behind each “pit,” grabbing the wreckage from one collision while hoisting and arranging pins so they are ready for the next one.
For years pin boys stood at the lane ends, manually resetting pins and rolling the balls back to bowlers. Machines did not appear until 1946, when AMF Bowling, Inc., now in Richmond, Va., introduced the first “automated pinspotter.” Brunswick Corporation in Lake Forest, Ill., later offered a competing “pinsetter,” and the two companies still dominate the market today with technology that is strongly reminiscent of the original.
What has changed most are the bells and whistles designed to expand bowling’s popularity. In the 1980s cameras were placed between the lanes, pointed at the pins, and wired to computers that automatically calculated bowlers’ scores and displayed them overhead. More recently, a system of blacklights, fluorescent pins, laser beams, loud music and video screens has turned the ordinary routine into a dazzling late-night dance party promoted as cosmic, disco or “Xtreme” bowling.
A visit to the back end of a typical 24-lane alley, such as Cove Bowling Lanes in Great Barrington, Mass., reveals a mechanical engineer’s paradise. Twenty-four steel, wood and rubber pinspotter machines relentlessly chunk along shoulder to shoulder; each one is about five feet tall, weighs about 2,000 pounds and collects, sorts and resets 10 pins in around eight seconds. Racks of spare belts, cams, rods, levers, oils and rags line the rear wall, looking like a cluttered auto repair garage. Cove Bowling Lanes head mechanic DJ Marks must inspect, clean and lubricate each machine every week. “It’s pretty much a constant job,” he says happily. “I do five machines a day—four on Fridays.” He shows them off to enthusiastic patrons and says most proprietors will do the same. So on your next trip to the lanes, if you are not compiling a marvelous score, ask for a peek at the mechanical marvels instead.
Did You Know...
HUMAN TARGET: Pin boys reset pins before machines came along. “You really had to work fast, or the bowlers would yell at you, ‘Hey, get moving!’” recalls Paul Retseck, 84, who set pins in the 1930s for $1 a night in Michigan City, Ind. Drunken patrons sometimes tried to hurl balls at boys who were stooped over picking up pins: “We learned to hop up quick onto the side wall,” Retseck says. Above: Subway Bowling Alleys in Brooklyn, N.Y., at 1 a.m., April 1910.
LOST BALL: Occasionally a ball does not return to the bowler. The most likely culprit is a pin that becomes lodged in the ball-return inlet hole, wedged under the return lever. An attendant must remove the pin, although a second bowled ball might knock it free, too.
RESET: At times the sweep bar may stall on the lane. This usually occurs because the table did not receive all 10 pins. The missing pin prompts the arm to stay above the table instead of returning to its neutral position, which signals the sweep cycle to continue. A bowler can request help from an attendant by pressing the reset button.