Old Chicago Pinball Machine (Bally, 1976)

Symptom: None of the lights working.
Location: Superior, Colorado.

One of the most common repairs I do is related to burnt connectors for the lights on a pinball machine.  Most of them are on solid state machines built by Williams and Data East. But even an EM machine can have this problem.

Burnt lighting connector from Bally EM pinball machine.

Unlike the newer machines where new connectors can be installed, the old ones require a work-around. In this case, the connector was between the control board plywood with all of the relays mounted on it and the fuse block on the right side of the cabinet near the tilt mechanism.  This is a little used connector which would only be used if one were removing the control board from the pinball machine, which is pretty rare. Most EM pinball machines don’t even have this connector, so I had no problem just splicing the bad wire together and bypassing the connector.

Had it been a connector for removing the backbox or playfield, I probably would have installed a single pin Molex connector or something similar for the bad wire.

Since the lights on this machine hadn’t worked in years, there were a few tune-up related items that needed to be done, such has replacing burned out bulbs and cleaning some relay and stepper contacts to get all of the lights working again.


Captain Fantastic Pinball Machine (Bally, 1976)

Symptom: Trips circuit breaker.
Location: Littleton, Colorado.

The house was recently constructed and has arc-fault (AFCI) circuit breakers installed on most circuits, which is now required by code.

Arc fault breakers are designed to detect arcing conditions in the electrical circuits of a house which could cause a fire. The problem is many devices cause nuisance (false) tripping, such as pinball machines and brush type motors used in vacuum cleaners and drills.  These devices have naturally occurring sparks being generated internally. Therefore the arc fault breakers are supposed to be able to tell the difference between a safe arc and an unsafe arc, but sometimes they don’t do a very good job.

In the case of an electrical motor, the arcs occur at regular intervals and the AFCI can be designed to ignore these. However, the arcs caused in an electro-mechanical pinball machine are totally random, based on flipper usage and what the ball is doing at any given moment. I’m sure the designers of arc-fault circuit interrupters didn’t design them with an old pinball machine in mind.  An electromechanical pinball machine has over a hundred switch contacts and many dozens of coils, which combine to create arcs at the switch contacts. These arcs are expected.

I carefully checked this pinball machine for any unsafe condition such as a bad line cord, ungrounded line cord, bad connections, etc., and could find nothing. Besides, having the pinball machine turned on and left on, without playing, didn’t trip the breaker. If tripped without playing, it would have indicated an unsafe condition. The breaker only tripped when playing, which is when the arcs in the switch contacts are being generated.

Using some specialized equipment, I measured very short current spikes of over 15 amps on the line cord when all 4 flippers engaged simultaneously along with a pop bumper or target bank reset coil. The average current was usually 1-3 amps. These 15 amp spikes are so short, they don’t even affect a fast-blow fuse rated at 8 amps.  These spikes ranged from a half-millisecond to 20-30 milliseconds.  An older style circuit breaker would cheerfully ignore these types of pulses (just like the fuse does).

I concluded that pinball machines, especially EM pinball machines, are not compatible with AFCI breakers, or at least the brand of AFCI that was installed in the house.

There are several options:

  1. Replace the ACFI breaker with a standard (old?) style breaker on the circuit that supplies the pinball machine. This would make the house no longer pass an inspection, but one could reinstall the AFCI when the house is sold. The difference in safety is negligible due to the astronomical odds of a fire being started by an arc in the first place.
  2. Replace the ACFI breaker with one from a different brand.  This is not as easy as it sounds since certain brands can only work in a certain panels. But, some brands are apparently less prone to nuisance tripping.
  3. Try to filter the pinball power so that the arcs and current spikes are not as noticeable to the breaker. In the case of this repair job, I installed a 2 ohm, 50 watt resistor in series with the line, downstream from the fuse, to help limit the current spikes.  This causes a voltage drop in the machine when the current spikes occur. (There is nothing special about the resistance value.  It was just something I had on hand. A 100 watt resistor would be preferable as the 50 watt resistor will get warm after a while (but not too hot to touch).  This machine had been previously converted LEDs, so this approach wouldn’t work with regular bulbs installed.) The jury is still out on this approach, but it seems to be working.

Consult with a licensed electrician for the first two options. I’m not one.

I think if it were any other pinball machine, one that had only 2 flippers for example, it probably wouldn’t have been a problem. And now that I think about it, an EM machine with incandescent bulbs instead of LEDs, might bury the inductive spikes in the resistive current draw of the machine.  As more new houses are being built in Colorado and utilizing AFCI breakers, and as more old pinball machines end up in these houses, it will be interesting to see how much of a problem this will be in the future.


Sea Ray (Bally, 1971)

Symptom: Machine shuts down when flippers are activated.
Location: Denver, CO

Many people are familiar with the Williams flipper reset problem. I’ve written about reset issues in the past. This is the first time I’ve come across an EM that shuts down due to the flippers being activated.

Usually when a pinball machine shuts down due to the flippers, there is a high-resistance path in the power chain.  An EM is no different in this regard.  So, the first place I looked was the fuse holder.  Bally EM machines from the 1970’s are known for having bad fuse holders.  As soon as I touched the fuse the machine came back to life.

Burned fuse and fuse holder.

Burned fuse and fuse holder.

In this case the fuse wasn’t making a solid connection to the fuse holder for a long time (years).  The melted solder blob on the side of the fuse end cap is indicative of high temperatures, caused by the high resistance connection to the fuse clip.  Plus there was the black scorch mark on both the fuse and the clip.  With the high temperatures, the fuse clip turns from being springy to being brittle. It broke off the fuse holder when I tried to remove the fuse.

The fuse holder was replaced and a new fuse installed.  This was quick to diagnose and quick to repair.

Spy Hunter Pinball Machine (Bally, 1984)

Symptoms:  Not all sounds are being played.
Location: Broomfield, CO

The owner had already replaced the troublesome capacitors, but the Cheap Squeak sound board was not producing all of the sounds.  I bench tested the sound board and everything seemed to be fine.

It turns out there is a setting that enables the full set of sounds.  What makes it worse is that if the MPU board battery goes dead, the default sound setting is “chime only”.  To re-enable the full sound setting, follow these steps:

  1. Open the coin door and press the small test pushbutton switch near the top center of the door.  This will begin the various steps of the self test.  The first test is the display test and all of the displays will start counting up.
  2. Continue pressing and releasing the test switch, no faster than once per second, until you see the Ball Count display (right side middle of the back box) incrementing 1, 2, 3, with every press of the switch.  You will have to step through the other self-tests before the value will start incrementing.
  3. Continue pressing and releasing the test switch until it has counted up and the display is showing “18”. The other score displays will probably be displaying “00”.
  4. Press the replay/start button on the front of the coin door until the other displays are showing “03”.  They will increment starting at 00 with each press of the start button.
  5. Turn the power off, and wait about 5 seconds and power the machine back up.  Play a game and the sounds should all be working.  When a game is started, the background music will start.

On this particular pinball machine, pressing the replay/start button in Step 4 did not advance the value shown in the score displays.  This was because the switch was grounding out against the metal support behind the switch. There is normally a thin, stiff, piece of cardboard (called “fish paper”) to insulate the switch, but it was missing.  The metal support was taped to insulate it, and the switch began to work properly.


Silverball Mania Pinball Machine (Bally, 1980)

Location: Arvada, CO
Symptoms: Blows playfield coil fuses; needs new rubbers and bulbs, cleaning.

I started by replacing both playfield fuses since they were blown.  When I started a game, the kicker at the outhole started firing randomly, sometimes very rapidly.  The sensing switch seemed to be fine. I also noticed that some of the pop bumpers weren’t firing correctly.  If I pressed on the left pop bumper skirt, the center pop bumper would fire.  Basically there was something not right with the solenoid driver circuit.

I started with the signal for the kicker coil, and with the oscilloscope, I traced it back through the solenoid driver board. The signal going into driver transistor Q11 was going crazy.  I went further back to the output of the 74154 decoder chip (U2) and the signal (pin 15) was still crazy and random looking. No wonder the fuses blew.

I checked the input signals to the 74154 and the “B” signal was randomly moving between 1 and 2 volts.  This is neither a digital “1” or “0” and it makes digital circuits act randomly.  I traced the signal further back to the MPU board to the output of the 6820 PIA (U11, Pin 11).  Since the 6820 was already in a socket, I lifted it out of the socket and bent pin 11 out, then put the 6820 back in.  This isolated pin 11 from the rest of the circuit to make sure that nothing else was interfering with the signal.  The oscilloscope showed it was still bad.

6820 PIA chip with pin 11 lifted to isolate it from the rest of the circuit.

6820 PIA chip with pin 11 lifted to isolate it from the rest of the circuit.

The faulty “B” signal would also cause the wrong pop bumpers (and other solenoids) to fire.

I replaced the 6820 with a 6821 (they are interchangeable)  Also, I replaced the 5101 RAM chip on the MPU board with an AnyPin NVRAM module and removed the battery from the circuit board. This will save the MPU board from future corrosion caused by battery gasses.

At this point the machine was working well, except it wouldn’t boot about 50% of the time.  It looked like a problem with the reset circuit.  Bally didn’t include a time delay in the reset circuit like most other manufacturers. I added a 4.7 uF tantalum capacitor across R2 to give the reset a little bit of time delay when it boots.  It solved the problem and booted 100% of the time after that.

4.7uF capacitor added across R2 to assist reset circuit.  AnyPin NVRAM module in lower right.

4.7uF capacitor added across R2 to assist reset circuit. The positive pin of the capacitor is connected to the right side of R2.  AnyPin NVRAM module in lower right.

Finally, all of the rubbers were replaced, bad bulbs replaced, and the playfield cleaned and waxed. Some of the light sockets needed cleaning because the bulbs weren’t making good connections.

Spy Hunter Pinball Machine, Bally (1984)

Symptom: Cheap Squeak sound board blowing fuses.

I had another person send me their Cheap Squeak board from their Spy Hunter pinball machine after it was blowing fuses. Compared to last time, it was much easier to identify where the short was located. Both C10 and C22 capacitors were shorted.

Shorted capacitors.

Shorted capacitors.

Tantalum capacitors were used for both C10 and C22, and a variety of other locations on the sound board. Although tantalum capacitors don’t age like aluminum electrolytic capacitors, they have a weakness: they don’t tolerate voltage spikes very well (nor reverse polarity, where they will likely explode).

Both C10 and C22 are located on the unregulated 12 Volt supply.  This supply normally runs a little higher, and since it’s unregulated can have voltage spikes on it.  So if your Cheap Squeak is blowing fuses, replace both of these capacitors.  The original caps were rated at 25 volts, but I use either a 35 volt or a 50 volt for a replacement to make them more resistant to voltage spikes.  The value is 4.7uF.

The other tantalum capacitors on the board should be fine since they are downstream from the 5 volt regulator and it’s very unlikely a voltage spike would get that far. They should last forever.

Also note that aluminum electrolytic capacitors have the minus “-” side identified on them and tantalum capacitors have the positive or “+” identified on them.  The circuit board has only “+” polarity identified for all capacitors regardless of type.  So double check the polarity of the capacitors before soldering them.


Spy Hunter Pinball Machine, Bally (1984)

Location: Lone Tree, Colorado

The owner had done some previous work on the sound board because it was blowing fuses.

When replacing capacitors, diodes, and ROMs, always double check the polarity.

When replacing capacitors, diodes, and ROMs, always double check the polarity.

Backwards ROMs.  The notch in end edge of the ROM chip should align with the notch in the socket and silkscreen image on the board.

Backwards ROMs. The notch in end edge of the ROM chip should align with the notch in the socket and silkscreen image on the board.

I determined that the 6803 controller was bad, as well as one of the ROMs.

Medusa Pinball Machine (Bally, 1981), LED upgrade

Most pinball LED’s that I’ve come across are not compatible with the early Bally solid state pinball machines from 1979 to 1985.  These machines use a lamp driver board, where each controlled lamp is driven by a silicon control rectifier (SCR), which is also known as a thyristor. Bally’s Medusa falls into this category.

An LED installed into a Bally of this vintage will flicker or not work at all.  The problem can be overcome with a 1000 ohm (1K) resistor in parallel with the LED.  The reason for the flicker is somewhat technical and is explained below.

Some people opt to solder a resistor across every lamp socket.  This isn’t too much of a problem if the number of lights is not high.  Medusa has over 80 controlled lights and that would be a lot of work, especially on the hard to get at sockets.

Since one side of each lamp is common to all of the others, a pull-up type resistor network can be used.  Also, since the connector pin spacing on the lamp driver board is 0.100″, this is a perfect match for using though-hole resistor networks because the pin spacing is the same.

Rear of Lamp Driver board showing resistor networks (pullups) installed.

Rear of Lamp Driver board showing resistor networks (pullups) installed.  Click for larger.

The resistor networks were laid horizontally next to the lamp output pins on the reverse side of the board (the view from the front of the board is unchanged and you’d never know the resistor networks are there).  The common pin from each network was bent up vertically where a wire connected all of them together (blue wire in the above photo).  The blue wire was routed through a single pin connector to the lamp common on the backboard. The single pin connector allows the driver board to be removed from the backbox.

Another nice thing about doing it this way, as opposed to putting a resistor on every socket, is if the machine is ever sold and the new owner (a purist) wants to switch back to regular #47 incandescent lamps, the resistor networks can easily be removed from the back of the circuit board (though incandescent lamps will work perfectly if the resistor networks remain in place).

On Medusa, there is a light bar at the top of the playfield.  It was decided to leave those as incandescent lamps. A LED can turn off and on faster than an incandescent bulb, and I think with today’s bright LED’s and the fact they are aimed right at the player, the flashing would be a bit too much.  Aside from that, all controlled lamps and general illumination on the playfield and backbox were replaced with LED’s.

Playfield with all LED lighting (except for row of red lights at the very top).  Click for larger.

Playfield with all LED lighting (except for row of red lights at the very top). Warm white LEDs were used for under playfield plastics. New translucent polyurethane flipper rubbers were used on the illuminated flippers. Click for larger.

Backgox LED lighting, with a mixture of warm white, cool white, and red LEDs for the eyes.

Backgox LED lighting, with a mixture of warm white, cool white, and red LEDs for the eyes.

Side LED's from Cointaker.com were used in places like the Gorgon rollover switches.

Side LED’s from Cointaker.com were used in places like the Gorgon rollover switches.


I’m not totally sold on the idea of upgrading older machines with LEDs, but all in all, I think it’s an improvement for Medusa.

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Gold Ball Pinball Machine (Bally, 1983)

Location: Highlands Ranch, CO.
Symptoms: Wouldn’t boot, rubber rings crumbling.

This machine sat neglected prior to the current owner purchasing it.  Although the NiCad battery looked ok and looked like it had been replaced relatively recently, there was a lot of corrosion on the CPU board.  It was even affecting the RAM sockets, where I could see blue-green corrosion in the socket holes.  During the boot process, the LED would only flash a couple of times, indicating a RAM failure.

Normally I would try to fix something like this.  In this case, since there was an aftermarket CPU board available, I recommended the owner purchase the new board.  With the old board, I could fix one thing, only to learn something else was damaged by the corrosion.  It turned out I was correct, except the corrosion had spread to the sound board, which sits right below the battery.  It had damaged the sockets there as well.

I was able to get the sound board working with some cleaning.

The rubber rings and burned out bulbs were replaced, and the playfield cleaned as well.

Eight Ball Pinball Machine (Bally, 1977)

Location: Highlands Ranch, Colorado.
Symptoms: Display not working, dim playfield lights, needed tune-up and testing.

The player 1 display only had a single digit working (10,000’s).   The first thing I did was swap it with the player 4 display to make sure the problem was with the display and not the MPU board or a connection problem.  The problem moved to the player 4 display after swapping, indicating the problem was with the display board itself.

With my oscilloscope, I verified the signals going to the display and the outputs of the driver transistors.  The other digits were working fine but were not illuminating.  The 10,000’s digit had a shorted transistor (Q11, 2N5401) which kept that digit on all of the time.  Normally, only one digit is turned on at a time, but it is done so fast that the human eye doesn’t detect it, giving the illusion that all digits are on.

In this case, with one digit shorted ON, the other digits stop working.  I’m guessing it has to do with ionization of the neon gas.  I replaced the transistor, and the other digits started working normally.

The controlled lamps on the playfield were dim and when in test mode, the power supply in the backbox would start buzzing when all of the lamps flashed on. I checked the voltage at TP1 and it was around 3V, which is too low.  The symptoms of buzzing and the voltage being about half, indicated a bad bridge rectifier (BR1).  This rectifier fails on many Bally machines of this era.  Once replaced, the playfield lights were at normal brightness and the buzzing stopped.