Recent Acquisitions: Galton Pinball Machine Just Another Victory for the Game

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Cultural institutions in San Francisco continually search for new acquisitions. Alexis Coe brings you the most important, often wondrous, sometimes bizarre, and occasionally downright vexing finds every other Friday.

If you haven't been to the Pacific Pinball Museum in Alameda, here's another reason: founder Michael Schiess has built a pinball machine based on the "bean machine."

Inventor Sir Francis Galton used it to demonstrates the central limit theorem. The machine has a vertical board with interleaved rows of pins, and balls are dropped from the top. They bounce left and right, and eventually, they are collected into the bins at the bottom, which demonstrates that the normal distribution is approximate to the binomial distribution.

If that last sentence was hard to fully comprehend on paper, you're not alone. Schiess uses the machine make math easier to understand, not to mention more exciting. for local school children.

You recently built a Galton Board Pinball Machine. You took inspiration from Galton, but designed it yourself. Did you have any help?

It was built by brother Christian Schiess and myself in our shop.

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How long did that take?

Working part-time, we designed and built a full-size working model in three months.

Is there an online community for this kind of endeavor, or were you flipping through good ol' books for instruction?

We are lifelong exhibit builders, using tape measures and seat of the pants engineering. Our experience working for the Exploratorium helped immensely in honing our skills.

Wikipedia was helpful with the information on Galton and his initial design.

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The recently completed, handmade Galton Board Pinball machine gets a test run in the Pacific Pinball Museum's workshop.

Had you ever built a pinball machine before?

I have built five Visible pinball machines, which were deconstructed commercial machines rebuilt into clear, fully functional art/science pieces. I have also designed and built many Kinetic Art/Science pieces that entertain and educate using pinball mechanisms.

Would you do it again? Are you taking orders?

Yes, we are working on several exhibits that are physical games which encourage understanding of physical phenomena. We hope to market these as individual exhibits and/or collections that are available for lease by other institutions. The Exploratorium bought our Visible Pinball Machine and it is currently on display in the Learning Studio at their new location at Pier 15.

How does the Galton Board fit into your exhibition at the Pinball Museum?

We have an ongoing exhibition called Adventures in the Science of Pinball , curated by Melissa Harmon.

My wife Melissa and I are teaching Pinball Science, Art and History classes to 70 advanced students from public and charter schools in Alameda. The Galton Pinball demonstrates Binomial Numeric Distribution and paves the way to learning basic concepts of probability, Boolean Algebra and computer science. It will be used in the classes and will be part of the museum's permanent collection.

What do you hope visitors will take away from this?

A glimpse of how simple technology can demonstrate complex concepts and mathematical formulas.

How long will it be on display?

It will be on display for one month and then rotate in and out of our museum's line up.

I'm imagining that arcades, where pinball machines typically lived, are threatened by video games that can be played at home, sort of in the way books are being threatened by e-books. Has that battle already been called?

It has been called and won by pinball. The pure physicality of pinball makes it something that must be experienced firsthand. Thanks to 10 years of promoting pinball by our museum, pinball is at an all time high since it's decline in 1998. The lack of tactile feedback and the repetitive nature of video games has led people back to the chaotic unpredictable thrill of playing with a silver ball and gravity. Playing pinball is akin to learning to dance and playing an instrument. When you get better at it, you want to "perform" in front of your friends and the truly social aspect of it becomes apparent. Much more satisfying than on line victories won at home where nobody can see you.

For events in San Francisco this week and beyond, check out our calendar section. Follow us on Twitter at @ExhibitionistSF and like us on Facebook. Follow Alexis Coe on twitter @alexis_coe.

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