Retrotechtacular: Robots and Bowling Pins

On a recent bowling excursion it occurred to us that this is one of the most advanced robotics systems most Americans will directly interact with. That’s a bold claim today, but certainly one that was correct decades ago. Let’s take a stroll back to 1963 for a look at the state of the art in bowling at the time, the AMF automatic pinspotter.

With their basis in industrial automation, bowling was a perfect problem for the American Machine and Foundry company (AMF) to take on. Their business began at the turn of the 20th century with automated cigarette manufacturing before turning their sights on bowling pins after the second world war. The challenge involves more than you might think as pinspotters are confined to a narrow area and need to work with oddly-shaped pins, the bowling ball itself, and deal with setting up fresh frames but also clearing out the field after the first roll.

Separating the ball from the pins is handled by gravity and an oscillating plunger that pushes errant pins back onto a conveyor. That conveyor stretches the width of the lane and moves pins back to a pin elevator — a wheel moving perpendicular to the ground with orients and raises them to a swiveling conveyor belt that can drop them into the setting jig waiting for the next full frame setup.

Everything in this promo video has jargon which is just delightful. We especially enjoyed the non-mechanical mention of how the machine “clears dead wood from the pin deck”. We could watch this kind of automation all day, and in fact found some other gems while searching about. Here’s a more recent look a the AMF 82-70 (the same model as in the promo video). We also wondered about manual pinspotting and found this manual-with-mechanical-assist setup to be interesting despite the audio.

Much to our surprise we’ve featured AMF in a Retrotectacular article before. Once their bowling automation started to take off, they set their sights on restaurant automation. Looks like Brian Benchoff’s visit to the robo-hamburger joint was actually a retro experience!

[Main image via Shane Ekerbicer Channel]

11 thoughts on “Retrotechtacular: Robots and Bowling Pins

  1. I’ve gotten paid to be a pin boy, it took much the same amount of time, just you had to dodge the errant balls that came your way. The bowling alley was in the basement of my church hall.

  2. “It is the duty of business to bring to man the discoveries of science.” AMF guiding philosophy.

    The mechanism for the “sweep bar elbow action assembly” (2:32 in video) looks very interesting for legs for walking machines. Almost like something you’d find on a beach decades later…

  3. Nuclear reactors, bicycles, pinsetters and ball returns, motorcycles, fast food, a wide variety of sporting goods – AMF was the company that had their fingers in every pie. They tried pretty much everything that came along in order to make money. Some were crazy successful, some not so much, especially when it came to businesses AMF bought and tried cutting costs.

    AMF is often cited as the company that bought Shopsmith and cut quality by introducing a slew of plastic replacements for parts that were originally metal, but that’s not a fact. The Shopsmith history is much more tangled.

    The Shopsmith ownership history is Magna Engineering Corp. 1947 to late 1950s. Bought by Yuba Power Products Inc. sold a short time later to an employee group operating as Magna America Corp. until closing in 1966. In 1972, John Folkerth, searching for Shopsmith parts, found the factory – complete with lots of parts and production equipment. He, along with other investors, bought it and operated as Shopsmith Inc. Filed for bankruptcy in 2009 and reorganized as RLF Shop then registered in Ohio in 2010 as RLF Brands LLC by Robert L Folkerth.

    Along with the lineage of genuine Shopsmith tools there have been some clones, copies, and “inspired by” versions. Many clones use cast iron instead of aluminum for the headstock and other parts. One Asian foundry based their headstock pattern off a damaged headstock. The line of a crack can be found on the inside of all the iron headstocks made from that pattern. Total Shop was like a Shopsmith, but embiggened. They’re sturdy enough that the manufacturer offered a metal turning kit. Another company was making a copy and touting higher quality than Shopsmith due to having all the aluminum parts that Folkerth had replaced with plastic.

    The clones and copies and similarly designed multipurpose woodworking machines have all fell by the wayside, while the original-ish line continues. The company recently introduced a new “Mark VII” but the only thing it has in common with the original Mark VII is can tilt both ways. Otherwise its design is the same as the Mark V. The company does offer the 2-way tilt parts as a kit to modify any Mark V. Their latest update is a digitally controlled DC motor, which replaces the old Reeves split sheave variable speed and it’s troublesome mechanical actuator. The control panel is in a round bezel that fits in place of the old speed crank.

  4. It’s fun to see things like this actually online.

    Being a former pinchaser at my local bowling alley, I can share a little info on this system, although we use AMF’s competitor, Brunswick. The AMF pinsetter, while efficient, also will not work if a sensor or other non-essential part is broken. I have seen Brunswick A-2 machines that had enough parts broken or missing at times, that it defied logic that they were even still working. But don’t tell the league bowlers. They never even knew!

    In closing, here’s a quickly searched vid on a Brunswick A-2, for anyone curious enough to watch.

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