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In bowling, a pinsetter, or pinspotter, was originally a person who manually reset bowling pins to their correct position, cleared fallen pins, and returned bowling balls to players. Probably due to the nature of the work (low-paid, often part-time, manual labor that most frequently took place evenings), many pinsetters were teenaged boys, and thus pinboy is another name used to describe the job. In 1936 Gottfried Schmidt invented the mechanical pinsetter while with the AMF firm, which largely did away with pinsetting as a manual profession, although a small number of bowling alleys still use human pinsetters. While humans usually no longer set the pins, a pinchaser, or in slang 'pin monkey', often is stationed near the equipment to ensure that it is clean and working properly, and to clear minor jams.
Many pinsetters are integrated with electronic scoring systems of varying sophistication. While many pinsetters have a manual reset button to use in case the pinsetter does not automatically activate at the correct time, other types have no automatic tracking of the state of the game - especially for the candlepin and duckpin bowling sports which use smaller balls - and are almost always manually activated.
The design of the machines varies. Several types of bowling make use of different designs for machines due to the different size and shape of the pins and balls. Common part descriptions for just about all pinspotting units consist of:
- Rake/Sweep Bar - removes fallen pins from the pindeck area of the lane. The sweep may also stay lowered throughout the table operating cycle, to act as a protective barrier against improperly thrown balls
- Spotting Deck/Table - also used in pre-automated manual units, places a new "rack" of pins onto the lane for the next frame, and in tenpins and duckpins, lifts the remaining pins for the sweep to remove fallen pins for the bowler's next roll of the ball in those games
- Deck shield (Brunswick Model A, A2 & JetBack only) - a fixed sheet metal enclosure, usually fastened to the spotting table's framework, protects the setting mechanism from improperly thrown balls and covers the pin chutes that are used to transfer the pins from the turret to the deck for transfer to the lanes.
- Pit - a collection area behind the lane where balls and struck pins collect for sorting, actually a part of any regulation bowling lane.
- Pin elevator - brings pins upwards out of the lane's pit to the top of the unit for re-racking for successive frames
- A system of pin storage for storing the next full "rack" of pins after delivery to it by the pin elevator system - this can exist within (or as part of) the table, or above and/or behind the table
- Ball return (or "ball lift") - Removes the bowler's ball from the lane's "pit" and sends it rolling back to the bowler on the ball return track, located between paired lane beds, back to the ball return unit at the "heads" of the lanes. The ball return is designed to distinguish the ball from the pins and will not send pins onto the ball return track.
In the decades leading up to the introduction of the fully automatic units, "semi-automatic" pinsetters, such as the "B-1" and "B-10" units made by Brunswick, basically consisting of just a manually filled "table" similar to those used on the fully automatic units, operating much as the later units' component of the same name operated, were used by human pinsetters to both speed up the manual operation, and assure accuracy of "spotting" the full rack of ten pins for the next frame.
A very common design for ten-pin bowling (the Brunswick Model A, dating from 1955, as well as the developed A2 and JetBack versions of it) pinsetters work as follows.
First, the balls and pins are pushed off the end of the lane onto a shaking board the width of the lane. This "shaker" transfers the ball and pins to the rear of the pit, behind the lane's pindeck. Two large spinning wheels, at the center rear of the unit, are situated with their common axis along the bowling lane. The ballwheel is the one closer to the bowler and is smooth on the inside; the pin-wheel (or pin elevator), placed behind the ball return wheel, has many pockets, which capture the pins.
When a ball rolls back to the ballwheel, friction lifts the ball up to the side where it catches on two lift rods covered with a rubber material. Wedged in between, the ball is rolled upward. When it gets to the top, it is deposited onto a metal track that usually leads underground, and is pushed along by a long accelerator belt. Finally, the ball is pushed upward by two pulleys located at the head of the ball return track, where it is deposited.
When a pin rolls back, the smaller diameter of the pin allows it to fall rearwards through the ball return wheel. Still being shaken by the board, it bounces around until it lands in a pocket in the pinwheel. It may be seated in the pinwheel head-first or base-first. The wheel brings the pin to the top and drops it into a metal tray, called a "turnaround pan". It's shaped somewhat like a scoop, with the lip of the scoop facing the bowler. The weight of the pin's body makes it drop into the pan base-first. It orients the pin so that its base is coming toward the bowler. From there a conveyor belt lifts the pin up, letting it slide into one of ten spots - nine around the periphery in groups of three spots each, and one in the center for the number-5 pin - in a rotating metal basket called the "turret". (situated just above the spotting table) with only the table itself, protected with the attached sheet metal "table shield", visible to the bowler as it descends to handle the pins. When a pin lands in an empty location in the turret, the turret rotates (or "indexes") so that the next pin will land in the next location, with the 5-pin cell in the center of the turret being filled last. Once the turret is full, the machine waits until it needs to re-set the pins. At that point, all ten pins are simultaneously dropped from the turret into the spotting table, which lowers them onto the lane.
This style of machine is typically loaded with 20 pins, though most proprietors normally put in 22 pins to facilitate quicker loading and faster operation of the pinsetter, especially in cases where the bowler(s) make two strikes in quick succession. Adding a couple of extra pins does not put undue stress on the machine, but adding more than that is not advisable due to damage that can occur to the machine. Other centers will only load the pinsetter with 19 pins. Having only 19 pins in the machine will cause fewer "stops" however, there is a drawback to 19 pins, if stops do not occur problems will not be found until they become severe.
The later A2 and JetBack versions were designed to have much faster ball return action than the original Model A units.
Other types of pinsetters
- The GSX is the Brunswick's current state-of-the-art pinsetter. It is characterized by a sweep that descends as soon as the ball enters the pindeck. This machine uses a conveyor belt on the pit floor to move the pins to a vertical elevator system similar to the ones utilized on the AMF 82 series pinspotters, while the ball exits the pit at the side through a ball door. Pins are loaded using a combination of belts. The ball return system on this machine uses an under-lane accelerator as opposed to a lift. It lowers the pin table on every cycle to determine scoring.
- The AMF family of pinspotters, the very first ones ever used in quantity in the industry, have changed little since the mass-produced 82-30 version. There are three main pinspotter models, the aforementioned 82-30 (no longer produced, but still in common use, ever since the 1960s US bowling boom and the early career of Dick Weber), the 82-70 (prototyped in 1962, and still in production, since 1963 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Irb-AzXzc1M,) and the newest version the 82-90 and the 82-90XLI, both of which use the 82-70's general mechanical design. All operate generally the same with small improvements. The 82-30's operation and mechanics, having been significantly developed from AMF's pioneering 82-10 experimental model, which depended much on the use of suction to hold the pins in a double-sided spotting table for both spotting remaining pins and setup of new racks of pins, are quite different from the Model A, A-2 and JetBack units from Brunswick (which the AMF 82-10 pre-dated by almost a decade), with differing sweep and table designs, and especially in how the pins are handled for storage, after they got to the top of the machinery. After the bowler rolls their ball, and knocking down the pins, the ball strikes the pit cushion block. This activates the machine, which lowers the sweep to the guard position. Then the table descends and the respot cells close around the heads of the standing pins. The cells that have pins in them complete electrical circuits that send scoring information to the display, and turned on one or more of ten "pindicator" lights - pioneered by AMF in May of 1953 - in an electrically illuminated triangular framed screen on the pinspotter's masking unit in front of the machine, to identify remaining pins. After the table lifts the remaining pins, the machine runs the sweep, clearing dead pins from the pin deck, then returns to the guard position. Ball and pins travel on a continuously running carpet belt at the bottom of the pit. The ball, being heavier, travels to one of the side kick-backs where it enters a shared ball return. The pins travel under the cushion into the ring-shaped, revolving circular pin elevator, at the rear center of the unit, which brings the pins up to a "distributor arm" that travels laterally as well as forward and back (on the 82-30, a guide rail atop the spotting table governs the distributor's head piece movements) over the table as seen here, to deliver the pins to the corresponding bins or "spotting cups" as known in the 82-30's factory manuals, awaiting the next spotting cycle. (In the 82-30, its semi-cylindrical "spotting cup" bins are part of the visible spotting table, suspended below the table's frame, with each "cup" inclined, pin-base-forward, in front of each spotting cell.) After the table returns to its upper position, the sweep also lifts, and the machine shuts down to await the next ball. For spotting the new rack of pins, the 82-30 version tilts the pin-filled spotting cups vertically as the table descends, and tilts the cups slightly rearwards as seen here to clear the new rack of pins just as the table starts upwards, leaving the new rack of pins spotted on the lane for the next frame.
There have been specific upgrades and improvements made to the machines produced after the 82-30, with after-market solid-state controllers available for the 82-30 itself. The 82-70 is the general standard in most AMF-equipped modern bowling centers today. It features a microprocessor-operated chassis that is upgraded to short cycle the machine for strikes, gutter balls, or 7–10 pick-offs. It features solid state motors. The 82-90 and the 82-90XLI are further upgrades, basically using the 82-70's mechanics, which replaced the older, completely electro-mechanical controls with machine status indicator lights, single control centers that handle two machines, and perhaps the most important upgrade is the self shutdown control, which shuts the machine down to prevent damage from continuing to operate with a fault. Qubica/AMF has also introduced many different scoring systems that are compatible with all pinsetters and pinspotters.
Beginning in December 1961, the 82-30 units also became famous for having the "Sparemaker" version of the earlier triangular pindicator screen on their masking units as advertised by AMF and their staff's pro bowler Dick Weber, which added a set of eleven lighted "arrows" to the usual numbered ten lights for standing pins, triangular corner lights that indicated the first or second ball to be rolled, and separate lights to indicate a foul, or a strike. The "arrows" were for the purpose of advising an inexperienced bowler to assist in spare conversion, by indicating where a second ball delivery should hit the remaining pins for a successful conversion, and were triggered by appropriate combinations of standing pins that helped the machine select which one of the eleven arrows to illuminate. Rear view of an AMF Magic Triangle screen and the patent document for it
- The Mendes company produced a magnetic pinsetter known as the MM-2001. It featured a flat magnetic pin table and magnets on the head of each pin. It had a pit similar to the AMF and an elevator similar to the GSX. Pin loading involves the combination of a carousel and magazine. The company claimed this technology reduces stops in play due to table jams on out-of-range pins. Mendes was bought out by Qubica, which sold the machine as the MAG3 until its partnership with AMF.
The now-defunct Bowl-Mor firm, that was more famous for their candlepin pinsetters, also made tenpin pinspotters early in their history. Some of these units are still in service, with at least one bowling center in Japan having continued to use them.
The most common candlepin pinsetters were made by a company named Bowl Mor, which was founded in the 1940s by two attorneys, Howard Dowd and R. Lionel Barrows. According to the International Candlepin Bowling Association (ICBA), Dowd and Barrows were searching for business venture that could weather an economic depression. Marketing research on their part found that participant sports met this requirement, and that bowling was one of the top three participant sports at the time. The first Bowl Mor pinsetters  were installed at the now-defunct Whalom Park amusement park in 1949. Though no longer manufactured, refurbished units, parts and maintenance support are available from several vendors.
Bowl Mor pinsetters have a depressed pit approximately 14" long at the end of the bowling lane, placed about 4" below the level of the lane surface, with a curtain behind it, hanging past the lane surface but not touching the bottom of the pit. The curtain arrests the backwards motion of struck balls and pins, so that they fall onto the pit. When a reset takes place, a sweep bar descends, driven by a chain drive system on each side of the machine, and sweeps the pins and balls off the lane, through the depressed area, and past the curtain and onto a rotating turntable. Here, pins and balls separate, being spun off the steadily rotating turntable by centrifugal force into the elevators.
An elevator composed of a rotating rack of open frames (similar to an industrial toaster) catches the candlepins and hauls them towards the top of the machine, and then turns 90 degrees to bring the pins horizontally across, bringing the pins past ten conveyors each wide enough to hold pins in a lengthwise orientation. Unlike the pinspotters used for tenpins and duckpins, since candlepins have identical "ends" to them, the machine does not have to orient the candlepins in one particular direction. The pins fall off the end of the conveyors into spotting tubes, mounted at their base onto the plate that forms the main part of the spotting table. Just as the sweep nears the forward end of its travel, and begins to move out of the way while ascending to its resting position, the table drops to the metal plate pindeck at the end of the lanebed, and release a set of pins, and then ascends to its own resting position, ready to be filled with pins once more.
A separate elevator next to the turntable transports the balls to the ball return system, which has a near-vertical ramp that the balls roll down to gain enough momentum to roll through either an above-lane or submerged trough back up the alley, entering the ball return rack next to the approach area where players can grab them. Bowl Mor pinsetters are stocked with 24 to 27 pins, and are deemed substantially more reliable than typical Ten-pin bowling pinsetters. Due to the playing rules of candlepin bowling allowing fallen "dead wood" pins to remain on the lane between each ball's roll, no provision has ever been made for "spotting cells" in a candlepin pinsetter's spotting table, simplifiying the machines' design. Most parts of the machine are driven by chains - especially the sweep board's drive system, on two L-shaped tracks on either side of the unit - or belts. A Bowl Mor unit weighs approximate 1,450 pounds (660 kg), and draws 24 amperes at 110 volts from three-wire 110-220 volt service mains. The ICBA lists the cost of a refurbished Bowl Mor unit at approximately $5000.
AMF manufactured candlepin pinsetters for a short time in the 1960s, using a Bowl Mor-style spotting table and an adapted tenpin-style sweep bar that operated at an unusually rapid pace during its sweep.
Unless triggered into action by an automated scoring unit, candlepin pinsetters must be started by the bowler at the conclusion of a frame, by using a button or foot pedal operated switch to start the reset cycle.
Five-pin bowling is a popular variation in Canada, and pinsetters fall into two categories: string and free-fall. String pinsetters are more prevalent, and consist of machines attached to the head of each pin, by means of a cord. Essentially, the pinsetter is triggered by the movement of any pin by more than an inch or two. With that, the machine lowers a guard, pulls up all 5 pins, and resets those that did not move. There is, on average, a three second lag from when the pins were knocked down to when the guard is lowered. The pit floor is angled such that the ball is gravity-fed to a track that leads to an elevator. The elevator lifts the ball to the return track.
Free-fall 5-pin pinsetters work in a similar way to their ten-pin counterparts, although they do not engage automatically (like a candlepin unit does) when a ball is bowled or pin knocked down. When the player pushes their "Reset" button, the machine lowers a guard, lifts standing pins and sweeps away the downed pins. If it does not recognize any standing pins, it will set up a new set for the next frame. Unlike tenpin, balls and pins are picked up in the same elevator or conveyor and are separated at the top of the machine.
Duckpin bowling is played in two varieties.
Regular duckpin bowling is popular in the northeastern and mid-Atlantic United States. One popular pinspotter in this sport is the Sherman, with conveyor belts, as required by the sport's ruling body, the National Duckpin Bowling Congress, at the ends of the gutters that move fallen pins to the pit. The Sherman's sweep device is located on the right side, vertical "kickback" panel of the lane and pivots 180 degrees (much like a fence gate) to clear pins. The pin table always handles the pins by the neck. A new rack of pins is created with a moving magazine that is shaped like a pin triangle. When the magazine is loaded, the pin table picks the pins out of the magazine and sets them on the lane.
The Bowl-Mor company also made a duckpin pinspotter for a time, using a similar sweep device to its more famous candlepin machines.
Soft belly or rubberband duckpin is played in Quebec. Most of these bowling centers use a string type pinsetter similar to five pin. Apart from five-pin, rubber band duckpin is the only bowling variant that currently sanctions string type pinsetters. The free-fall machine for this sport features a rotating turntable in the pit floor similar to a Bowl-Mor candlepin unit, conveyor belts in the gutters as required in the regular duckpin game in the USA, an elevator similar to the Brunswick GSX, a turret similar to the A-2, and a rather flat looking pin table. The sweep is similar to the candlepin Bowl-Mor.
Older table-based pinsetters that pick up the pins between throws could malfunction if a pin were moved sideways when the ball is thrown, but remained standing. The pin would now be out of alignment with the setter pickup holes, and the table mechanism would collide with these misplaced pins. Failure of the device to detect pin drift can result in setter mechanism collision damage, pin crush damage, or lane damage from blunt force pressure of the setter pressing down on the misaligned pin.
If a pin had drifted but still managed to be picked up, older table pinsetters would simply realign the pin into the correct spot when placing it back onto the lane. This results in less than accurate gameplay since the table is changing the pin positions during the pickup process.
Regular table-style fully automated tenpin pinspotters from AMF and Brunswick, from their beginnings earlier in the 20th century, have been required by the United States Bowling Congress to be able to accurately re-spot "off-spot" pins that have been knocked out of position, sometimes up to 15 cm from the normal setting position, and then place them back onto the lane in the same location. If the pins are sufficiently out of position to not be pickable, the table will detect contact with the misplaced pin, and shut down the pinspotter to prevent mechanism damage.
String pinsetters generally do not have a mechanism to place pins back on the lane exactly where they were before, during the spare clearing. Since there is no table, collision damage is not possible with a string pinsetter, but they can suffer from string entanglement when the pins are being picked up, that prevents pins from aligning with the pickup holes.
- Development of the Automatic Pinsetter
- HowStuffWorks.com on pinsetters (describes the later Brunswick GS-10 and GSX pinsetters)
- Bowlinglinks all over the World, sorted by categories
- Article about a bowling alley that still (as of 2000) uses human pinsetters
- An Elks lodge two-lane alley that still uses Brunswick pinboy-operated semi-automatic pinsetters in the 21st century
- ICBA page about Bowl Mor units
- AMF 82-30 pinspotter videos page
- Part 1 and Part 2 of two-part video of Brunswick Model A2 pinspotter in action
- OldBowling's video of first, a very early model of Brunswick tenpin pinspotter, and then a prototype of the Brunswick Model A pinspotter
- Manufacture and operation of AMF 82-70 pinspotters
- The Bowl-Mor candlepin pinsetter in action
- A rare Bowl-Mor tenpin pinspotter in action
- The Sherman duckpin pinspotter in action
- Video of a rare Canadian fivepin bowling pinspotter