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