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The Flexible-Belly Bowling Pin
"Topple those hard metal hollow cores with a resilient coating material!"
by Steve Gross

Like many stories, this one has a somewhat strange genesis. I was discussing bowling about this time last year with my wife, when she began talking about something she called a "Flexible Belly Bowling Pin." It, she claimed, was a pin that was made not of maple, but instead had a hollow metal core with some form of plastic coating. I was, to say the least, doubtful that such a device ever existed. "A non-maple pin? Never!" She persisted, claiming that it had even been patented in the late 1960's. Thus began the search that eventually resulted in my possessing a copy of United States Patent #3,346,258, filed on May 18, 1964 and issued to William H. Schimanski, Michael G. Gautraud, and Fred E. Satchell on October 10, 1967.

Here's the abstract:

A bowling pin having a hollow metal core and a plastic coating over the core. The core has weakened area above and below the impact area in the belly of the pin so that the belly flexes inward under impact with a bowling ball to increase the impact time.
Hmmm. But a non-maple pin? Could it be accepted by the general bowling public? How could we know that the pin works as we expect it should? Let's see what the patent has to say:

Before a synthetic pin, such as the plastic-coated hollow metal core pin, can receive approval of the American Bowling Congress, the major regulatory body with respect to bowling pin specifications, the pin must score like a sound, hard maple pin. Thus, the hard maple pin is considered as the standard in the bowling industry.

Ah! It's not a bowling pin unless it acts like a maple pin. That's more like it. It's with good reason that "topple those maples" is the battle cry of amateur and professional bowlers alike. But what's so exciting about this particular pin, aside from its non-mapleness? Back to the patent:

Bowling pins . . . are are intended to be used in bowling games, such as tenpins, and are to be struck by a ball in the manner normally occuring during such bowling games . . . [A] plastic-coated hollow metal core generally has scoring characteristics different from those of a maple core pin.
But not so with this pin! The difference? The flexible belly! As it was so eloquently put back in 1964:
The increased impact time, provided by the greater flexibility in the belly region of the core in bowling pins prepared in accordance with the present invention, results in improving the scoring characteristics of the pins for bringing them more in line with the scoring character- istics of a maple pin. Additionally, the longer contact time permits transfer of the force from the ball under impact over a longer period of time, resulting in improved durability and improved sound characteristics.
The conclusion of the inventors? Among other things:
A bowling pin comprising a hollow, generally rigid, resilient core extending from an impact belly region into a lower base region and an upper shoulder region and including a relatively weakened, flexible, and resilient portion of said core in the belly region on either side of a bowling ball impact plane contiguous with the remainder of said core, said weakened portions being resilient and sufficiently weakened to increase the amount of flexing of the belly area and thereby increasing the ball impact contact time at said plane, and a resilient coating on the exterior of said core, each of said weakened portions having a wall thickness less than the wall thickness of the adjacent portions of the core in the base and shoulder regions.
Well said!

I was so intrigued by this invention that I decided to track down the primary inventor, William H. Schimanski, and ask him some questions about his Flexy-Belly Pin, as I have come to call it. Surprisingly enough, he lives in Muskegon, Michigan, where the flexible belly bowling pin was invented under the auspices of Brunswick Corporation (which, incidentally, is incorporated in the State of Delaware due to the substantial tax advantages offered there).

Why a non-maple pin? What are the advantages over the standard maple?

Well, at that time, it was thought that maple was, or would be, in short supply. Also, one of our competitors was working on a magnesium pin. We thought it was important to provide a synthetic pin as well. Actually, the competitor finally went belly up. They could never get their pin to score like a maple (it scored too low), so it never got American Bowling Congress approval.

How did you hit on the idea of the flexible belly?

We had a durability problem with our first synthetic pin. The necks tended to snap on impact! So we took high-speed movies of strikes, and analyzed them. We found that we were transferring the same force from the ball to the synthetic pin as the maple pin, but we were doing it in a shorter time. So the flexible belly was our way of increasing the contact time. Really, we weren't trying to fix up the scoring problem, but that seemed to do it. In fact, we got to the point where I could regularly bowl a 200 game, and I wasn't that good of a bowler. We had to reduce the "scoreability" of the pin. So you see that we really had overcome the low scoring problem.

What other problems did you have to solve?

When I first started on the project, we had a pin that looked like a bowling pin. That was about it! We had to give it the correct mass, center of gravity, and the flexible belly to get the kinematics right. But the thing still sounded like broken crockery when you got a strike! Now, nobody wants to hear anything but a good, solid "THOK!" when they hit a bowling pin. And if your pin sounds wrong, and the bowlers have a bad day, they're going to be quick to blame all of their problems on those pins. They're going to tell the bowling alley owner to get some maple pins back in the alley, or they're going elsewhere. So we really had to fix that. We tried a few things, and finally got a good, 1200 cycles per second flex frequency, which gives that "THOK" sound, but it still rang on for too long. Now, these pins had a nylon bottom (which maple pins had by then, too), which attached through a hole in the base. One batch of pins came from manufacturing with the hole too large. So our technician put an O-ring in the hole to fix it. For whatever reason, when you pick up two bowling pins, the first thing you do is hit them together. Especially if you're trying to get the sound right! He hit them together, and BINGO! The sound was right on. See, I'm trying to make this process of invention sound scientific, like we knew what we were doing, but that's not really the way it was at all!

How did you test the pins?

We had lanes right in the building, with a pinsetter and everything. We also had an "automatic bowler," that would spin the ball up to rolling speed, and fire it at the pins from about two feet away. We'd aim bang-on to the number one pin, and fire away about ten times or so, noting the leave of the pins. Then we'd move over a little bit, and do it again. After doing this enough, we'd know exactly where the strike zone is. That was a quantifiable thing -- the size and location of the strike zone. Once we had a pin with about the right strike zone, we'd go down to the Michigan Bowling Alley in Muskegon, maybe on a Tuesday morning, and have all the unemployed bowlers [bowling is a job -sg] test the pins! It was supposed to be a blind test, with the bowlers not knowing what pins they had, but until we fixed the sound problem, everybody knew what they had! We gave incentives, like the high scorer on maples would get, say, $15, while the high scorer on synthetics got $50! At least, until we got the scores on the synthetics up. We had to use guys with about a 190 average, because they had to have a good "feel" for what a maple pin would do, so they could tell us what we were doing wrong.

Then what? How did you get American Bowling Congress and customer approval?

We had to make up a few thousand pins to send to the American Bowling Congress in Milwaukee. Remember that we were making them by hand -- we didn't have a production line. We were working three shifts in the lab, churning these things out! It was a hectic time. We had to pay the ABC to use them, too! They would use them in pro matches, along with their "reference" maple pins. They would alternate -- maybe one week on maples, and one week on ours. They kept track of the scores. Once they determined that there was no statistically significant difference in the scores, they would approve the pin. They would have approved the pins that sounded like broken crockery if they scored right! Customer approval dictated that we should worry about the sound, though. In fact, most customers would probably have preferred higher-scoring pins! If your average score is ten points higher at Joe's Bowling Center (which has synthetic pins), you'd want to bowl there more!

The flexible belly pin never went on the market, though.

Yes, that's right. I talked about the durability issue. Well, the pins in a typical bowling alley were replaced about three times a year. That's three opportunities for the Brunswick sales representative to glad-hand the owners, hit them up to buy some more balls, maybe some new scorers, show them the latest in pinsetters, all of that stuff. When we tripled the durability, that would have cut the representative's visits down to one per year. Brunswick thought about that at the beginning, but we had to make something because our competitor was. Also, we had a lot of capital invested in our wood pin tooling. We had a new plant in Muskegon (which is closing now) making maple pins. Of course, in 1964 you could literally make bowling pins in your garage. All you needed was a lathe and something to coat the pins with! Now, all bowling pins have fancy coatings, and the garage industry is completely gone.

Thanks for your time, Bill.

You're welcome, Steve.

Well, there you have it. The complete story of Brunswick's attempt to bring the bowling pin into the space age, and the power of the marketplace to resist this progress. But I don't think we've seen the last of the Flexy-Belly. It seems that every time I turn around, another bowling alley has succumbed to the temptation to buy a computerized scoring system. If the bowling tally sheet and overhead projector are gone, what's to stop the maple pin from being next on the hit list?

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