Finally, Simpson developed the most successful and groundbreaking invention of his career: the game of Skee-Ball, which he patented in 1908.
Joseph Fourestier Simpson was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on October 31, 1852, to a merchant class family. His father sold cotton duck fabric for sails, work clothes and tarpaulins right up to the end of the Civil War, when the southern sources for cheap cotton dried up. He passed away soon after that, leaving Simpson fatherless at age 17, just as the young man was getting ready to make his way in the world. Simpson was an exceptional young man, meticulous, highly observant, curious and tenacious when ideas caught his attention. And unlike his merchant father, he had a passionate desire to invent.
Starting as a railway clerk, Simpson worked hard, and within a few years, he started his own lumber planing business. And he started inventing. While running the mill, he patented an ingenious over-center trunk latch, which allowed an overfilled travel trunk to be closed easily. Although it was exhibited at the 1876 Centennial Exposition and commended for “utility and low cost,” he was unable to find a manufacturing and sales outlet for his invention. He closed his planing business and worked with his cousin to develop and patent a ratchet wrench, but ran into the same problem in finding manufacturing and sales. He continued to struggle with ups and downs of the industrial economy, reinventing himself as a manager, an attorney working in real estate, an investor and broker for mining and railway projects, and a manufacturer of knitted goods. Simpson was working tirelessly to advance himself on his own merit in an unforgiving economy that treated those without independent family wealth harshly.
In his middle years around the turn of the century, Simpson became even more creative, with a plethora of innovations and inventions. Refined sugar had just been introduced to the market, and Simpson planned on using the new ingredient to create a health candy. He came up with the idea of selling stamps that could be affixed to a postcard and redeemed at the other end for small amounts of cash, calling his invention a “postal check.” He worked for years on building a better bicycle seat to cash in on the fast growing bicycle craze. He invented a clever board game based on managing two way rail traffic on a single set of tracks. He still had a problem attracting capital and businessmen to manage and promote his innovations, and one by one, they fizzled.
Finally, Simpson developed the most successful and groundbreaking invention of his career: the game of Skee-Ball, which he patented in 1908. He had learned a lot of lessons over the course of his career, and every one of them went into making Skee-Ball a success. He incorporated key features to make this a fascinating game for players, and a great money-maker for operators, with an automatic coin box and ball release, as well as automatic scoring and ball return. The game was designed so there was no need to reset pins or targets, and no need to keep score manually. That meant that, there was no need to employ an attendant to collect money or reset the game for the next player. The Skee-jump proved to be just the right twist for making the game more fascinating and challenging for players. Simpson proved to be a visionary, with a game appealing to a brand new and expanding audience. Simpson noted that these people were the “nervous and imaginative types” who were attracted by the game’s uniqueness and “fast play excitement” in contrast to the slower more traditional game of bowling.
Simpson did his best to prepare for business success. He attracted a deep pocket investor, William Nice Jr., and an enthusiastic young man, John W. Harper, to manufacture and sell the alleys. But fate intervened. After only a few months, William Nice Jr. passed away unexpectedly, and Simpson and Harper struggled to find someone to take over manufacturing and promotion of the game. This effort was thwarted by businesspeople too conservative and lacking in vision to appreciate his breakthroughs.
In the end, it was a Skee-Ball player and enthusiast who bought them out. Jonathan Dickinson Este had the advantages that Simpson lacked: a father who was a successful business owner; a Princeton University education including the financial and business contacts he made there; and the resources to continue to refine what Simpson developed. But Simpson was the visionary, the tireless inventor, striving with all of his intelligence, tenacity and creativity against all odds to gift the planet with the longest lived and most beloved arcade game ever invented: Skee-Ball.
Simpson continued to invent, including a crate suitable for shipping eggs long distance, and another promising game called Bridgeball. Sadly, after initial promise, these inventions also failed to take hold. He retired to write the family genealogy, and manage some internal family affairs. Simpson passed away in 1930, living long enough to see Skee-Ball become a phenomenal success, but unfortunately, never partaking of the true financial fruits of his labors.
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/.