If It’s Summer It Must Be Skee-Ball

Masthead image.

The last school bell has rung for the year, and as families re-orient themselves to the fact that it’s summer, they are finalizing their vacation plans. And if you’re anywhere near the Jersey Shore that means a trip there, be it for a day, a week or longer.

And if you’re going to the Shore then you’re definitely going to be playing Skee-Ball on the boardwalk. Again this summer another generation will be introduced to this fascinating game by their brothers and sisters, parents, grand parents or aunts and uncles. Whoever it is that makes the introduction will put them in front of an alley show them how to roll the ball and then wait patiently for the new inductee to follow suit.

The machines will clang, the balls will clank their distinctive sound, the tickets will burp out and another generation will know the thrill of the ball flying over the ski-jump, holding their breath, and waiting to see which ring it will fall in. And that will be the beginning of their best memories at the Boardwalk—playing Skee-Ball.

At the end of it all, they’ll take their modest number of tickets and redeem them for a small trinket. The more seasoned will horde their tickets until they have enough to cash them in for something more substantial, like the ginormous teddy bear.

Have a great summer, roll some balls and collect those tickets. And if you feel just a bit nostalgic while doing it, give a nod to Joseph Fourestier Simpson, the man who invented the game and gave the world our first taste of Skee-Ball in 1909.

Happy rolling and have a great summer!

About the author:

Thaddeus Cooper is the co-author of Seeking Redemption: The Real Story of the Beautiful Game of Skee-Ball, a deep dive into the history of the game. You can find more information about Thaddeus, and his co-author, and their book, at: http://www.nomoreboxes.com/.

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SB Tokens | Skee-Ball Alley Co.

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After Joseph Fourestier Simpson invented and then received his patent for Skee-Ball on December 8, 1908, he made a deal with John W. Harper and William Nice Jr. to build, sell and promote the game. Harper and Nice set up a company named the “Skee-Ball Alley Company,” which initially operated out of an office in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Harper built and marketed the alleys, while Nice was supposed to be the “deep pockets” investor. These original alleys came with a scoring device and coin box. The coin box took nickel sized coinage, including tokens. Harper had tokens made specifically for the Skee-Ball Alley Company.

Although the token has the name of the company as the “Skee-Ball Co.” on the token, the address is the same as Harper’s corporate address in Philadelphia, 533 Chestnut Street. Presumably they couldn’t fit the full name of the company on the token and abbreviated it, as they did with the city name, “Philada.”

On the back of the token, it states the obvious: “Good For One Game Skee-Ball.”

The coin box feature was terrific for operators and revolutionary for the arcade games at the time time, eliminating the need for an attendant to hand out balls and take coins. But Harper had no end of trouble setting up the coin box. In August of 1910, he wrote in a letter to Simpson:

Dear Simpson,

I enclose you 2 different kind of keys for coin boxes. I am sure 1 opens the box I set out to put on alley. I do not think you will have any trouble in adjusting box as I have had all the trouble a person could have adjusting it when it was first placed. When they come to move [the] alley, remember the screw into the floor at tapered end of trough.

And this coin box, along with the integrated ball release, was about to make history.

Token Specs.

  • Size: 21mm
  • Composition: Brass
  • Shape: Round

About the author:

Thaddeus Cooper is the co-author of Seeking Redemption: The Real Story of the Beautiful Game of Skee-Ball, a deep dive into the history of the game. You can find more information about Thaddeus, and his co-author, and their book, at: http://www.nomoreboxes.com/.

SB History | The History of the Skee-Ball Patent • Part 12

Read Part 11

Simpson waited breathlessly. He had sent his response to the Patent Office on May 4 stating:

In the matter of my application for patent on Game No 401,786,filed November 12,1907 and in answer to Examiners [sic] letter dated April 20, 1908,I hereby amend my specification by striking out Claim 1.

He could only imagine what Townsend, the irascible Patent Examiner had in store for him this time.

On May 16, the Patent Office rendered their final decision in the matter and mailed it to Simpson. This was the letter that would make or break his application.

If the Patent Office decided that it was not going to grant the patent would the game of Skee-Ball exist today?

The letter from the Patent Office arrived a few days later and Simpson was greeted by the following:

SIR: Your APPLICATION for a patent for an IMPROVEMENT IN

Game apparatus,

filed Nov. 12, 1907, has been examined and ALLOWED.

The final fee, TWENTY DOLLARS, must be paid, and the Letters Patent bear date as of a day not later than SIX MONTHS from the time of this present notice of allowance.

The letter went on to detail the details of what needed to be done in addition to paying the fees and the penalties for not meeting those dates. But, this meant that Simpson would receive the patent for Skee-Ball later that year and that he was on his way to fulfilling his dream of bringing the game to market.

It was as good as done! Simpson had his patent, now all that remained was that he pay the fees, provide the drawings and wait for it to be published. In the meantime that gave him ample time to work on the next steps to bring the game to market. One can only hope that Simpson celebrated this victory with at least a smile. He may have lost many battles, but ultimately he won the war. The game of Skee-Ball was that much closer to coming to market!

Letter from US Patent Office to Joseph Fouretier Simpson, May 16, 1908.

About the author:

Thaddeus Cooper is the co-author of Seeking Redemption: The Real Story of the Beautiful Game of Skee-Ball, a deep dive into the history of the game. You can find more information about Thaddeus, and his co-author, and their book, at: http://www.nomoreboxes.com/.

SB History | The History of the Skee-Ball Patent • Part 11

Read Part 10

Simpson received Townsend’s letter of April 20, 1908 and seems to have been stunned into silence.

Whether he perceived Townsend’s attempt at humor it was clear that claim 1 was not going to be granted no matter what he did to try and rewrite it. Townsend was not having it.

Simpson had started the patent process back in November 1907 with great hope and seven claims:

  1. In a game apparatus, in combination, a board along which a projectile is adapted to travel, an obstruction upon said board for causing said projectile to be projected into the tair in a direction which will be a continuation of its original movement, and a target in the line of the trajectory of said projectile.
  2. In a game apparatus, in combination, a board along which a projectile is adapted to travel, an obstruction for trajecting said projectile, and a perforated target in the line of the trajectory of said projectile.
  3. In a game apparatus, in combination, a board along which a ball is adapted to be rolled, an obstruction for trajecting said ball, a target in the line of the trajectory of the ball, and an inclined base or floor for returning the ball to the player after it has been played.
  4. In a game apparatus, in combination, a board along which a ball is adapted to be rolled, an obstruction for trajecting said ball, a target in the line of the trajectory of said ball, and an indicator for showing the part of said target engaged by the ball.
  5. In a game apparatus, in combination, a board along which a projectile is adapted to travel, an obstruction for trajecting said projectile, a target in the line of the trajectory of said projectile, screens for limiting side movements of said projectile, and an inclined base for returning said projectile to the player.
  6. In a game apparatus, in combination, a board along which said ball is adapted to be rolled, an obstruction for trajecting said ball, inclined gutters to the sides of said board, an inclined base to the rear of and leading to said gutters, a target, and screens for limiting side movements of said ball.
  7. In a game apparatus, in combination, a board along which a projectile is adapted to be rolled, an obstruction for trajecting said projectile, a perforated taget in the line of the trajectory of said projectiles, pivoted levers connected with said perforations adapted to be engaged and depressed by the projectile after passing through said perforations, and an indicating device adapted to be operated by the movement of said levers.

By April 1908, those claims were whittled away at until Simpson only had two claims left, The ski jump obstruction, and the lever in the target to register the score.:

  1. In a game apparatus, in combination, a board along which a projectile is adapted to travel, an apertured target at the rear of and above said board, in front of and spaced from said target, adapted to cause said ball to leave said board and continue its flight towards said target in the air.
  2. In a game apparatus, in combination, a board along which a projectile is adapted to be rolled, an obstruction for trajecting said projectile, an elevated apertured target at the rear of and spaced from said obstruction, pivoted levers arranged in said apertures adapted to be engaged and operated by the projectile after passing through said apertures, and an indicating device adapted to be operated by the movement of said levers.

It is reasonable to believe that Simpson would be angry and depressed at this point. It was clear that the Patent Office did not understand the brilliance of the invention and how all the pieces fit together to make a game that would fascinate players. And, it was even more obvious that he was not going to be able to change their minds, no matter how adamant he was.

Simpson finally came to terms with the situation and decided a patent with some form of protection was better than no patent and he finally gave up. He wrote his response on May 4, 1908, stating:

Sir:-

In the matter of my application for patent on Game No 401,786, filed November 12, 1907 and in answer to Examiners [sic] letter dated April 20, 1908, I hereby amend my specification by striking out Claim 1.

Very respectfully

Joseph F. Simpson

And once again, Joseph Fourestier Simpson waited.

Letter from Joseph Fourestier Simpson to the US Patent Office, May 4, 1908.

About the author:

Thaddeus Cooper is the co-author of Seeking Redemption: The Real Story of the Beautiful Game of Skee-Ball, a deep dive into the history of the game. You can find more information about Thaddeus, and his co-author, and their book, at: http://www.nomoreboxes.com/.

SB History | The History of the Skee-Ball Patent • Part 10

Read Part 9

Simpson’s letter of April 7 arrived at the US Patent office and as usual wended its way through the mailroom, then down the majestic columned halls of the Patent Office until it came to rest in the pile of patent applications on Senior Patent Examiner, William Wilder Townsend’s desk.

Townsend had shown no sense of humor with respect to Simpson’s application for a mere game. It is possible that he thought games were beneath him, and the Patent Office, especially when there were so many more important patents to be granted.

He did however go through Simpson’s response and wrote one of the shortest responses ever to Simpson, possibly showing that he may actually have had a sense of humor. On April 20th he wrote:

Applicant’s statement that claim 1 has not been amended as suggested is not understood, unless it refers to the retention of the comma in line 4 of the claim, which could not possibly define a distinction over the references. The claim is still held to be substantially met in Miller, of record, and is again rejected.

For want of a comma a patent was almost lost!

One would hope that Simpson would see the humor in the rejection, however slight that might be.

Letter from William Wilder Townsend to Joseph Fourestier Simpson, April 20, 1908.

About the author:

Thaddeus Cooper is the co-author of Seeking Redemption: The Real Story of the Beautiful Game of Skee-Ball, a deep dive into the history of the game. You can find more information about Thaddeus, and his co-author, and their book, at: http://www.nomoreboxes.com/.

SB History | The History of the Skee-Ball Patent • Part 9

Read Part 8

In what had to be one of the quickest turn-arounds possible, Simpson received the letter that Townsend had written on April 4 and responded on April 7, 1908. Simpson was either incredibly well prepared for what he knew was coming or more likely spent several long days drafting and finalizing his response.

In an attempt to not antagonize Townsend too much he made all of the changes to claims two and three and one of the suggested changes to claim 1, and responded to Townsend:

1st. by striking out word “to” line 3 – claim 1, and by substituting at.

2nd. by striking out in line 3 – claim 2 words “to” and by substituting word at, and by striking out in same line and claim words “and spaced from”,

3rd. by inserting in front of words “said target”, line 4 – claim 2 words and spaced from,

4th. By inserting in front of word “apertured” line 3 – claim 3 word elevated.

5th. by striking out word “to” line 3, claim 3 and by substituting word at,

6th. by striking out in line 4, claim 3, words “and above”.

He goes on to say:

…claim 1 has not been amended as suggested as it is believed that to do so would clearly put the claim in shape to be met by Miller, of record.

Attention is called to the fact that in Miller the targets, which are ordinary ten pins, are carried upon a board that is not spaced from the ball track but which is a continuation of this track.

In the Miller game the pins are not “elevated targets”, in the sense that my target is elevated, they are carried by the pin table and the ball is adapted to strike their tops so that it may not be impeded by the pins and the cords attached thereto. In my case the target is separate and distinct from the table or board along which the balls are rolled. Broadly speaking this target might not be perforated but it should be elevated above the leve of the ball table and entirely separate therefrom and it is this construction that I claim.

An exhausted Simpson sent the letter, hoping this time would be the final time–again–and that Townsend would finally understand that the ski obstruction and the elevated target were the key and uniquely related features of the game. Something that up until 1908 no one else had done, and something that would fascinate the players and be timeless. Something anyone who has played the game today knows, as do all of the imitators of the game.

About the author:

Thaddeus Cooper is the co-author of Seeking Redemption: The Real Story of the Beautiful Game of Skee-Ball, a deep dive into the history of the game. You can find more information about Thaddeus, and his co-author, and their book, at: http://www.nomoreboxes.com/.

SB History | The Story of the Skee-Ball Patent • Part 8

Read Part 7

It took a little less than three weeks for Townsend to read, research, and respond to Simpson’s letter of March 17, 1908. On April 4, 1908 he rendered his decision, following his usual format of first giving guidance about wording changes that he wanted Simpson to make.

He gave Simpson detailed changes to all three claims:

In claim 1, line 3, at should be substituted for “to” and the words “and spaced from”, canceled; line 4, the comma between “board” and “in” should be canceled and the words and spaced from inserted after “front of”.

In claim 2, line 3, at should be substituted for “to”, and the words “and spaced from”, canceled, and the words and spaced from, should be inserted before “said target”.

In claim 3, line 3, elevated, should be inserted before “apertured”; and, line 4, “and above” should be canceled.

Simpson had rewritten claim 1 to read:

In a game apparatus, in combination, a board along which a projectile is adapted to travel on an elevated target to the rear of and spaced from said board, and an obstruction upon said board, in front of said target, adapted to cause said ball to leave said board and continue its flight towards said target in the air.

After the nit-picking about the wording of the claim, Townsend delivered what could only be considered bad news for Simpson, rejecting the claim for the elevated target:

Claim 1 defines no invention over and is substantially anticipated by Miller, of record. Claim 1 is accordingly rejected.

There was a glimmer of hope for claims two and three. For those Townsend stated:

Claims 2 and 3, if amended as indicated, may, as at present advised, be allowed.

While it was still an uphill battle, it was possible that Simpson and Townsend were finally coming to some agreement about the claims for the patent. The ball was squarely in Simpson’s court. The question was, could he convince the irascible Townsend of their merits even if he made the changes?

Letter from William Wilder Townsend to Joseph Fourestier Simpson, April 4, 1908.


About the author:

Thaddeus Cooper is the co-author of Seeking Redemption: The Real Story of the Beautiful Game of Skee-Ball, a deep dive into the history of the game. You can find more information about Thaddeus, and his co-author, and their book, at: http://www.nomoreboxes.com/.

SB History | The Story of the Skee-Ball Patent • Part 7

Read Part 6

Simpson mailed his response to Townsend’s rejection letter on March 17. The single page letter made it to Townsend’s desk in Room 312 of Division VII of the United States Patent Office the next day.

This response to Townsend’s letter of March 2 contained an even more restricted set of claims. Simpson’s previous letter had four claims. This letter had only three: the elevated target at the rear of the alley; the ski jump obstruction to launch the ball into the air; and the levers for advancing the score. Simpson clung desperately to what he knew were the most important features of the game. Simpson’s new claims were:

1. In a game apparatus, in combination, a board along which a projectile is adapted to travel on an elevated target to the rear of and spaced from said board, and an obstruction upon said board, in front of said target, adapted to ause said ball to leave said board and continue its flight towards said target in the air.

2. In a game apparatus, in combination, a board along which a projectile is adapted to travel, an apertured target to the rear of and above and spaced from said board, and an obstruction upon said board, in from of said target, adapted to cause said ball to leave said board and continue its flight towards said target in the air.

3. In a game apparatus, in combination, a board along which a projectile is adapted to be rolled, an obstruction for trajecting said projectile, an apertured target to the rear of and above and spaced from said obstruction, pivoted levers arranged in said apertures adapted to be engaged and operated by the projectile after passing through said apertures, and an indicating device adapted to be operated by the movement of said levers.

Simpson finished the letter stating:

It is believed that the above claims will not conflict with the references of record, none of which show a board furnished with an obstruction and a target to the rear of and spaced from said board and obstruction.

Simpson’s claims, as well as his patience, were getting thinner and thinner.

About the author:

Thaddeus Cooper is the co-author of Seeking Redemption: The Real Story of the Beautiful Game of Skee-Ball, a deep dive into the history of the game. You can find more information about Thaddeus, and his co-author, and their book, at: http://www.nomoreboxes.com/.

SB History | The Story of the Skee-Ball Patent • Part 6

Read Part 5

Figure 3-700PXWide

The US Patent Office received Simpson’s reply on February 15, 1908. Again, it came to rest on William Wilder Townsend’s desk.

Simpson had reworked the application by replacing four of the five claims, and had argued vehemently for the claim about the obstruction launching the ball into the air. This was the most important feature of the game and Simpson was not going to let Townsend reject that claim–it was too important.

Townsend read the application, and responded, with his usual terseness, with several editorial changes that he wanted Simpson to make for claims 2, 4, and 5. And then Townsend brought the hammer down once again, stating:

Claims 1 and 3 are anticipated by

Miller, #809,715, Jan. 9, 1906; 

(Games and Toys, Bowling Alleys);

and are rejected.

Claim 4 is substantially anticipated by Wise, of record. It also defines nothing patentable over Miller cited, and is rejected. In the ltter [sic] patent the pins themselves are the indicator.

Townsend’s and Simpson’s game of cat and mouse was not going well for the mouse.

1908 Townsend-3

About the author:

Thaddeus Cooper is the co-author of Seeking Redemption: The Real Story of the Beautiful Game of Skee-Ball, a deep dive into the history of the game. You can find more information about Thaddeus, and his co-author, and their book, at: http://www.nomoreboxes.com/.

SB History | The Story of the Skee-Ball Patent • Part 5

Read Part 4

Figure 3-700PXWide

William Wilder Townsend’s letter was mailed on February 1, 1908 to Joseph Fourestier Simpson, care of his attorney, Charles Rutter. One can only imagine the frustration that Simpson felt after receiving the letter. All of the claims had been rejected, and it was clear from the patents cited that Townsend, though brilliant in his own fields, truly did not understand the invention in front of him.

Simpson took a deep breath. By February 12, 1908 he had formulated a response, which he mailed back to the Patent Office. He first stated that he was replacing  claims 1, 2, 4, and 5 with new claims. However, he refused to replace claim 3, which had to do with the obstruction that launched the ball into the air. He would have more to say later in the letter about the obstruction. The new claims were as follows:

1. In a game apparatus, in combination, a board along which a projectile is adapted to travel, an elevated target to the read of said board, and an obstruction upon said board, in from of said target, adapted to cause said ball to leave said board and continue its flight towards said target in the air.

2. In a game apparatus, in combination, a board along which a projectile is adapted to travel, a perforated target to the read and above of said board, and an obstruction upon said board, in front of said target, adapted to cause said ball to leave said board and continue its flight towards said target in the air.

4. In a game apparatus, in combination, a board along which a ball is adapted to be rolled, an obstruction upon said board, in front of said target, adapted to traject said ball, said target, and an indicator for showing the part of said target engaged by said ball.

5. In a game apparatus, in combination, a board along which a projectile is adapted to be rolled, an obstruction for trajecting said projectile, a target having apertures placed to the read of said obstruction, pivoted levers arranged in said apertures adapted to be engaged and depressed by the projectile after passing through said apertures, and an indicating device adapted to be operated by the moment of said levers.

He then went on to say:

“The claims have been amended for the sake of clearness and it is thought that they do not conflict with the references of record none of which contemplate trajecting the ball, that is causing it to continue its flight from the obstruction to the target through the air.”

And he finished the letter, noting:

“None of the references so far cited have shown a game in which a ball is engaged by an obstruction causing it to rise in and fly through the air towards a target, hence the applicant beleives [sic] that he is entitled to claims covering a game in which the ball passes from the player to a target first along a board and finally through the air. The precise details of applicants game as illustrated and described would be of no value without the main feature upon which, he believes, he is entitled to protection.”

Perhaps this time Townsend would understand that the ball flying through the air to the target was the significant part of the invention. But perhaps not.

About the author:

Thaddeus Cooper is the co-author of Seeking Redemption: The Real Story of the Beautiful Game of Skee-Ball, a deep dive into the history of the game. You can find more information about Thaddeus, and his co-author, and their book, at: http://www.nomoreboxes.com/.