How Shelby AMF Launched The Golden Age of Bowling : 1953

The Golden Age of Bowling in the United States took place in the 1950s and ‘60s, and the epicenter of all that fun was Shelby, Ohio.  That was where AMF had its Bowling Division factory, and it was their job to produce every sort of innovative new aspect of the sport that eventually came to be the standard bowling experience across the nation.

The number of Bowling Alleys in the USA went from 6,000 in 1955 to 11,000 by 1963, and during this same period, the number of people in Bowling Leagues rose from just under 3 million to over 7 million.  Without question, this explosion of popularity can be attributed to one single factor: the automatic pinsetter.

America’s pinsetter machines were manufactured in Shelby. In fact, within a year of locating their bowling operations to Shelby, AMF began calling it the Pinspotter Division.

Before that revolutionary concept of bowling was introduced, every alley required a team of pinsetter boys who ran up from behind to stand the bowling pins back up.  When AMF invented the robotic system that could mechanically collect and re-set pins in the alley, the game moved much more quickly.

Frank Gilbert told me he was one of the pinsetters as a kid, and sometimes the bowling alley would let them bowl for free if they set their own pins.

It didn’t take bowlers long to get used to the idea that re-placing the pins could be so quick, and right away every bowling alley in America wanted them. That was when AMF bought the empty Shelby Cycle factory to set up shop producing pinsetter machines.

It was a complex operation in 1953 when the factory opened, and in the first few frames of its production it took 200 Shelby folks to turn out 200 pinsetter machines a month.

Within a year there were 500 people, and by the time Shelby had established itself as the most important bowling hub of the nation there were 950 employed in the game.

This factory on Mack Avenue was the first 1953 AMF operation in Shelby, in a building that started life as the Shelby Cycle Co. Today the land is occupied by the city Municipal & Police complex.

By 1961 AMF was putting out 15,000 pinsetters a year and needed more space so this new factory was built off Mickey Road.

Within a decade of opening, Shelby AMF was producing nearly everything necessary for bowling seen in this photo except the wooden lanes: the ball racks, seats, ball returns, desks, Magic Triangles, bowling pins, and those super deluxe ashtrays.

During the 1950s, Shelby AMC robotic pinsetters were represented in advertising across the nation by Mr. Pinspotter.

This newspaper ad from 1954 says, “Enjoy Rhythm Bowling:” a term used to describe the dramatic change in pace that came to the game when automatic pinsetters made it easier for a bowler to “get into the rhythm” of their game, because they no longer had to wait for boys to set up the pins and return their ball. That was how the Shelby bowling alley got its name: Rhythm Bowl.

This photo from the Rhythm Bowl in Shelby on East Whitney Avenue appeared in Look Magazine as part of a special AMF advertising pullout section focusing on Shelby, seen below.

The Science of Fun

Inside the Shelby plant was the AMF engineering office where the company put together a mechanical genius pool whose sole purpose was to make fun simpler.

They perfected the ball return machinery so that every bowling ball made a quiet roll underneath the floor back to the alley’s starting line in only 11 seconds.

Then they came up with the one innovation that brought the ancient sport of tenpins into the 20th century: it was called the Magic Triangle.

AMF’s logo was an easily identifiable triangle from the beginning of the company in 1900, and so all the early pinsetter placements already had that iconic symbol mounted above each alley pin bay pointing at the bowling pins.

The Shelby engineers devised a way to light up that triangle with a diagram of the ten pins so as to help bowlers picture exactly which pins were left after the first ball, and exactly where they needed to throw their second spare ball in order to pick off the remaining pins.

It was physics and optics and complex circuitry at its Atomic Age perfection, and to 1950s America it was truly nothing less than magic.

A bowler stands 60 feet from the pin bay and it’s not always easy to see which pins are still standing after the first ball has been rolled, so when the automatic pinsetter clears away fallen pins the Magic Triangle lights up the positions of pins that are left.

After Shelby, there were no bowling alleys in America considered complete without some variation of the Magic Triangle.

At the time of its invention in the early 1950s, AMF had a name for the Magic Triangle: it was called a Pindicator. Hard as they tried to get that word set into the public imagination, it never really caught on.

After a bowler’s first ball has been rolled, there are 1,023 possible combinations of pin combinations left for the second ball. Engineers at the Shelby AMF plant devised the electrical diagram common today.

AMF advertising in the 1950s took the Magic Triangle as close to home as they could in every community by getting local sports heroes to pose with the novel new equipment.

Television star Dick Clark put a popular face on the bowling craze by becoming the representative of AMF in 1959. This free booklet given away at AMF bowling alleys displays the principal advertising they used in the 1950s: BOWL WHERE YOU SEE THE MAGIC TRIANGLE.

This unique Shelby-made AMF robotic machinery at the North Central Ohio Industrial Museum is a prototype pinsetter game intended for Fairgrounds, Taverns, & Shopping Centers.  It sat stored in a warehouse since the early 1960s, yet when it was moved into the Museum it started right up.

AMF stands for American Machine and Foundry. Though it was organized originally in New York to manufacture cigar-making equipment in 1900, by the time they got to Shelby they were the nation’s leading producer of sports equipment of all kinds.

Mr. Pinspotter is another in the family of robots who were born in Richland County.

Thank You!

Images in this article come from the Brett Dunbar collection, Phil Stoodt, the archives of the Shelby Museum of History, and the North Central Ohio Industrial Museum. Engineer, mechanic, fabricator, electrician and video star Bob Shutt made an appearance with the AMF pinsetter.

One comment

  1. Very interesting story! I had no idea this company created and produced the pin setter! I actually remember a trip to the bowling alley when young boys did all the setting. I often wondered if they ever got clobbered by those flying pins?!

    Growing up I remember car trips to Galion or Shelby so Chub could catch a train to Cleveland. I could never understand why trains that came through Mansfield didn’t go to “The Mistake on the Lake!”

    Steve Clemens



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