Gremlin Industries Incorporated

Gremlin Industries was founded in 1973 as an effort to build coin-operated games based on discrete digital and analog electronic components.  Their efforts were focused on the development of coin-operated wall games, with the first production wall game being "Play Ball".  Although Gremlin was not the first company to develop wall games, they were the first to move away from relays and electro-mechanical components, and implement digital IC technology in these games.

The company name was almost an accident.  To quote the Vice President of Engineering, Jerry Hansen, "The name 'Gremlin' came as a surprise to us.  We had applied to the State of California for a company name dozens of times, but they always came back saying that the names were taken.  The last one we tried was a combination of two individual names, but the clerk obviously misunderstood, and the corporate certificate came to us with 'Gremlin Industries' boldly printed across the top.  In retrospect, it turned out to be a pretty good name for a game company."

How did the company get started?  I asked Jerry Hansen:

"One day a local game operator walked in to our small lab looking for someone to repair a "Dart Game" wall game.  I fixed it for him, but in the process was so appalled by the inferior quality of the circuit design, I mentioned to him that someone should do it right.  He then began to tell us - with a straight face - about how the coin box was overflowing with quarters every time he went to check it.  So, I began to play around with some TTL circuits and miniature light bulbs, created a few coincidence gates and the idea of a swinging bat and a moving ball came to mind.  A few weeks later we had a prototype of "Play Ball".  Instead of two smaller, separate panels like the dart games, we chose to use a single, much larger, panel and that seemed to enhance its ultimate popularity.

The original screen was thin styrene, chosen because it would transmit light and not alter the color images that were silk screened on the reverse side.  We made the original mold for the light baffle by constructing a male plug out of wood, polishing and waxing it heavily, then pouring an epoxy mixture into the mold.  When it set up, we delivered it to a vacuum-forming company and they made the baffle out of a slightly heavier sheet of styrene.  We sprayed the back of this with black paint to keep light leakage to a minimum, and poked the holes for the lamps by using a hot soldering iron.

The artwork was done by Lonnie Pogue, an industrial designer that had an office just down the street from us.  Lonnie is still designing and has a large portfolio of industrial products that have benefited from his talent.  I still have lunch with Lonnie every few months.

The silk screening was done by a small graphics company in El Cajon (a suburb of San Diego) by Harold Whelan who has long ago retired.  I'm sure that none of the screens or original artwork survives.  We changed to the dark screens after several months of experimenting to find the right plastic with a neutral color that would faithfully transmit the proper colors.

The first ten or twenty (I forget) units were hand wired and the lamp sockets were riveted to the baseboard that served to hold the lamps and printed circuit boards.  The wiring harness was something of a mess, so we decided to see if we could get a large circuit board instead.  The problem was that no one in the US had ever made a PC board that big.  We approached all of the PC houses in a 300 mile radius and made queries as far away as Chicago, but no one could do it.  We finally approached a very small local shop that was just getting started and the owner reckoned that he could make some large flat tubs, put them in his parking lot, fill them with ferric chloride, put in the board (copper side up) and swish the ferric chloride around with a push broom until they were properly etched.  We were amazed that his technique actually worked very well.  About 18 months later, a company that manufactured PC etching equipment visited the "facility" and shortly thereafter came out with a machine large enough to etch the board. They told us that this machine became popular because other companies could put several pc circuits on the board and cut them apart later, saving considerable money. 

Play Ball was successful enough that we decided to abandon some of the other little products we were making and devote our major efforts to the game business.  Trap Shoot came about after I did some additional tinkering in the lab and it sold so well that we then devoted our attention entirely to game development.  I was able to hire some engineers and programmers and we also entered the video game business with "Blockade".  From that point on it was pretty interesting ride.  We ultimately merged with Sega, grew the company until it occupied a 180,000 sq. ft. facility, and all worked there until we closed it in 1984, when the game business largely collapsed."

The closure was not the end of Gremlin wall games, however.  An engineer with the company asked for, and received permission to bring the wall games back under the Gremlin name.  "Play Ball" was reissued as "All Star" and "Grand Slam".  "Trapshoot" was reissued as "Skeet Shoot", and possibly also with the same name, "Trapshoot".