Atlas Obscura
Your Guide to the World's Hidden Wonders

May 29 2015 9:15 AM

The War On Pinball

On Obscura Day, this Saturday, May 30, join us for a private tour and play session at the Pacific Pinball Museumwhich has a massive collection of vintage pinball machines. 

In an age of Call of DutyGrand Theft Auto, and fantasy games where sex is a major subquest, it seems hard to believe that pinball was once the scourge of America’s youth.

But in the 1940s and for decades after, the pinging, zinging, flicking, bumping game of pinball was considered by many to be both a moral and economic stain on America’s proud cultural quilt.


To get the story of the war on pinball, we spoke with Michael Schiess, executive director of the Pacific Pinball Museum in Alameda, California, who has been collecting and repairing pinball machines, both modern and vintage, since 2001.  

Descended from a table game known as Bagatelle, the first pinball machine was patented in 1871, after a plunger mechanism that rocketed the ball into the playing field was added to the game. By the 1930s, pinball machines were ubiquitous amusements in bars and taverns around the country, and were seen as “trade stimulators,” a boon to the bleak economy of the Great Depression.  

Before the invention of flippers, which were not introduced until 1947, the launched ball would simply bounce off pins into whichever random hole it found on the field. Despite the random, uncontrollable nature of the game, people still placed wagers on the outcome of these games, and pinball soon gained a reputation as a gambling machine that catered to lowlifes. This reputation was bolstered by the fact that most of the machines came from Chicago, then a hub of mob activity, and the cash-based machines were easy targets for criminals.

This gamified source of ill-gotten gain soon attracted the attention of crusading do-gooders, who set out to put a stop to the pinball epidemic, eventually leading to the game being banned in a number of cities, most notably New York. Chief among the opponents of pinball was then-Mayor of New York City Fiorella LaGuardia, who succeeded in passing a citywide ban on the machines in 1942 with the help of some nationalistic furor.

“By 1942 [LaGuardia] had been trying to ban pinball and a lot of illegal activities in New York. He was trying to clean up New York, so I think he was using anything he could get his hands on,” Schiess explains.

“He got most of his ammo when Pearl Harbor was bombed. They needed materials and resources for the war effort, and pinball of course used wood, wire, metal, glass, all these resources that were required for the war. Once he had that ammunition, he was able to enact a law to make [pinball] illegal.” 

With LaGuardia leading the charge to have the game banned and eliminated, places like Oakland, California, and Chicago, where most of the machines were manufactured, followed suit and created laws banning or limiting the use of pinball machines. Even with the laws in place, the game was never completely eliminated. The new legal restrictions on the game quickly quashed the use of the machines as gambling tools, with many of the games being set up so that you could not “win” per se, but instead competed for the chance at an extra game.

Even as its connection to gambling dissipated in the 1950s, the nationwide attitude towards pinball retained the finger-wagging tenor of a moral crusade. Newspaper articles were written and advertisements were created that denounced pinball as “taking lunch money from our kids,” as Schiess puts it. The arguments sounded remarkably similar to many of the alarmist arguments against video games that continue to be espoused even today.

As the years passed, pinball machines continued to pop up around the country in various forms as the furor against them lessened and the laws and bans became more lax. Yet it was not until 1976 that the New York pinball ban was actually lifted.

“The way I understand it, some of the pinball manufacturers were lobbying to get the ban lifted, because people were playing pinball in New York,” says Schiess.

The canny lobbyists brought an actual pinball machine into a city council meeting, where pinball historian Roger Sharpe gave a demonstration of how it worked:

"The ban was lifted when Roger Sharpe went in and did a Babe Ruth number where he called his shot, and then he launched his ball. This was after several attempts to prove to them that he could actually beat the machine,” Schiess explains. “But they weren’t buying it until he made that shot. As soon as he made it, they took a vote and the ban was lifted. It was a big deal.”

With a single, successfully landed flipper shot (and several backup pinball machines on standby in case the main one malfunctioned), Sharpe proved to the city council, and the nation at large, that pinball was in fact a game of skill and not just a tool of iniquity for hoodlums and rock-and-rollers. After New York City lifted its official prohibition on the game, many other cities followed suit, and pinball quickly returned to prominence.

Pinball machines grew ever more complex in the decades that followed, with media-licensed machines becoming the norm, adding more and more digital bells and whistles in a losing race to compete with the rise of video games. Yet remnants of pinball’s days as the bad boy of amusements still remain. As Schiess tells it, pinball was still banned in Oakland right up until 2014. The law prohibiting it was rediscovered and abolished during research regarding an online gambling law.

By the late 2000s, pinball had become a beloved but increasingly rare amusement, with all but one of the major manufacturers (Stern being the remaining company) having gone out of business. The days when pinball was a symbol of gangsters and greasers were finished, only to be replaced by a warm nostalgia for the jangling tangibility of the cacophonous game.

More wonders to explore:

Video Advertisement

May 28 2015 12:00 PM

The World Bog Snorkeling Championship

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world’s hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook and Tumblr, or follow us on Twitter.

The yearly World Bog Snorkeling Championship takes place in the small Welsh town of Llanwrtyd Wells and consists of what it sounds like: entrants stroking through a swimming lane created out of a stinking local bog.

Unsurprisingly, the traditional sport is said to have been created as part of a bar bet in 1976. The small town sport has now grown into a yearly contest that sees hundreds of daring swimmers from around the world flock to Llanwrtyd Wells, all trying to break the speed record for traversing the jet-black waters.


During the championship, which takes place each August, competitors must complete two laps of a 180-foot lane carved into the Waen Rhydd peat bog, aided by nothing but flippers and a snorkel. A wetsuit is encouraged but not required. Many contestants arrive in wild costumes, and a prize is given for the best one. But the big prize is the world speed record, which is routinely broken during the event. It is currently held by Surrey’s Kirsty Johnson, who completed the two circuits in one minute and 22.56 seconds.

The odd honors aside, the event is a platform to raise awareness of the environmental importance of peat bogs, which harbor a multitude of wildlife. A noble goal, but one that might be easy to miss in the fervor to cross the gross finish line before anyone else.

For more on the World Bog Snorkeling Championships, check Atlas Obscura!

More wonders to explore:

May 27 2015 12:15 PM

The Twisted Remains of America’s Deadliest Avalanche  

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world’s hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook and Tumblr, or follow us on Twitter.

In the wilderness of Washington’s Tye River Valley, near Stevens Pass, are twisted pieces of rusting metal slowly being overtaken by the surrounding foliage. These bits of scrap are the final remnants of the Wellington Avalanche of 1910, the deadliest disaster of its kind in American history.

On Feb. 28, 1910, the small rail station in what was then called Wellington, Washington, was on lockdown after almost a fortnight of blizzard conditions. The area was buried in an impassable layer of snow. Despite the best efforts of the depot workers, two trains—one a passenger train called the Spokane Express, the other a mail carrier—were snowed in place for six days at the base of Windy Mountain. With telegraph lines downed by the storm, all communication to the small town and station had been cut off.


A number of passengers decided to escape the mountain on foot, but many more remained, waiting for the weather to give them a break that would sadly not come in time. As February turned to March, the heavy snows turned to a rainy, windy storm, giving some degree of hope to the passengers waiting to escape their mountainous purgatory. However, in the wee hours of March 1, 1910, lightning struck the mountainside and triggered a massive avalanche that sent a towering wave of snow thundering down toward the depot.

The cascade of "white death" obliterated the station and much of the small community of Wellington. The waiting train cars rolled over 150 feet down into the Tye River Valley, where the wreckage became buried in dozens of feet of snow. In the final accounting, 96 souls were lost in the disaster, including passengers and train workers, making it the deadliest avalanche in the country’s history. None of the people who walked off the mountain is reported to have perished. 

After the tragedy, the community of Wellington was renamed Tye to distance it from the deaths, but even this name change could not save the small town, which eventually dissolved.

Today hikers on the Iron Goat Trail can still find bits of the warped wreckage that were not carried off the mountain, crumbling under the overgrowth as a reminder of nature’s terrible wrath.

More wonders to explore:

May 22 2015 12:52 PM

The Cabinet of Lost Noses in Copenhagen

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world’s hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook and Tumblr, or follow us on Twitter.

As with clothing, museum curation endures trends that come and go. But unlike more traditional fashion, the consequences of styling in the art world can be drastically more permanent. 

Hidden within Copenhagen’s Glyptotek art museum is a curious cabinet filled with 100 plaster noses. Visitors who find it stare in wonder as a single body part has been arranged so meticulously that it would appear to be its own work of art. In reality, they’ve come face to face with the Nasothek, a piece of commentary on the history of art preservation.


Known for its large body of Greek and Roman works of sculpture, the Glyptotek has witnessed its pieces break over the years. The most vulnerable place often fell on the statues’ noses. Particularly in the 19th century, it had been a common practice among conservators to apply a facsimile of the broken element, so as to re-complete what had been lost.

Today this benign act of “restoration” reads like a grand faux pas. In the midst of an era of “de-restoration”, museum staff has taken to removing fake noses and appendages from sculptures to which they’d been affixed for decades.

Hands literally full of noses that once graced some of history's most prized countenances, curators were to decide what to do with the physical evidence of their ancestors’ art crimes. Rather than bury them, the Nasothek was born, which takes its name from the Latin for “nose” and Greek for “container.”

In exchange, observant museum-goers have been given a rare glimpse into the face of authenticity in the art world, tucked into the corner of a museum teeming with perfectly imperfect creations. 

More wonders to explore:

May 21 2015 8:35 AM

The Soviet Military Secret That Could Become Alaska’s Most Valuable Crop

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world’s hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook and Tumblr, or follow us on Twitter.

Al Poindexter’s front yard in the south-central plain of Alaska has been taken over by a spread of more than 2,000 cell trays, each growing dozens of plants that look “like something you’d expect from Mars,” he says. The little ones look like little nubs; the larger ones are no more than an inch tall and feature a spiral of fleshy leaves.

“I tried killing it—you can’t kill it. That’s my kind of plant,” says Poindexter. “It can go weeks without water. Moose don’t eat it, rabbits don’t eat it, weather doesn’t seem to bother it. It’s a real easy plant to grow.”


This is Rhodiola rosea—golden root, rose root—a succulent that was used for centuries as folk medicine and once considered something of a Soviet military secret. Decades ago, the Soviets realized that Rhodiola could boost energy and help manage stress. These days, a small group of Alaskan farmers are hoping that it could enter the pantheon of plants (coffee, chocolate, coca) whose powers people take seriously—and, along the way, become Alaska’s most valuable crop.

In Alaska, farmers spend a lot of time trying to coax plants that would prefer to be growing elsewhere into surviving in Alaska’s tough conditions. Rhodiola, though, comes from Siberia’s Altai Mountains, and it seems right at home in the frigid ground.

Rhodiola growing in a test plot in Alaska.

Photo: Stephen Brown

“It’s actually an environment that the plant wants to grow in, as opposed to everything else we grow in Alaska,” says Stephen Brown, a professor and district agriculture agent at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks. “It’ll grow in the Arctic and sub-Arctic. It wants our long days. It’s already coming up out of the ground—and the ground’s still frozen."

In the northerly parts of the world, reports of rhodiola use go back centuries—long before Carl Linnaeus first named the plant in the 18th century. It was thought to boost strength and endurance, as well as help with altitude sickness. One analogy, Stephen Brown says, it that, if caffeine makes a person’s engine run faster, “Rhodiola gives you a bigger gas tank.”

For decades, Soviet researchers worked on divining the source and strength of the plant’s power. It’s not entirely clear when their investigations began: a significant portion, Rhodiola enthusiasts say, was never published but kept close in Russia government files. In 1961, one ecologist led an expedition to the Altai mountains to search for the source of the root, and by mid-decade, serious study into the plants’ effects had started, a group of researchers reported in the journal HerbalGram in 2002.

“It was considered a Soviet military secret,” says Dr. Petra Illig, the founder of Alaska Rhodiola Products, a cooperative of Rhodiola farmers. “Most of what was done back then was unpublished and hidden in drawers in Moscow. They used it for the physical and mental performance of their soldiers and athletes.” She and other investigators have confirmed that cosmonauts in the country's space program have also experimented with Rhodiola.

Rhodiola growing in Norway.

Photo:Randi Hausken/Creative Commons

One of the first vocal advocates for Rhodiola in the United States was Dr. Zakir Ramazanov, a professor of plant biochemistry and co-author of the HerbalGram article. He first encountered it during his service in the Soviet-Afghan war—not through any official source, but a fellow soldier whose family sent him Rhodiola to make into energy-boosting tea. When he came to United States in the 1990s, he started importing the plant and would travel back to the former Soviet Union to try to collect the associated studies. He was able to trace the history of Soviet research back to the 1940s, Science News reported in 2007.

Dr. Illig, who’s “a standard show-me-an-x-ray-and-blood-test doctor,” as she puts it, first found out about Rhodiola from that Science News article. She had recently moved up to Alaska, and “had more time on my hands than money,” she says. She started looking into it, figuring that since Rhodiola grew in the Siberian mountains that it would also grow in Alaskan mountains. By 2010, she had given over her yard to Rhodiola seedlings—100,000 of them. She applied to the state for a grant to expand the operation, which is how Stephen Brown got pulled into the project.

“We get a lot of these application where someone is proposing these herbal medicines,” he says. “I would refer to them as ‘unicorn and rainbow’ applications”—filled with promises of cure-alls. Rhodiola, though, was different: it was backed by credible citations and peer-reviewed literature. Brown wasn’t convinced the plant actually had beneficial properties, but thought if there was a market for Rhodiola, it might be worth growing, regardless.

Now, though, he’s a convert. “I'm a marathon runner and I'm trying to do marathon in every state,” he says. “Normally, I hit the wall at mile 19.” But, then he decided to try Rhodiola. “I never had that sense of total exhaustion I normally get. That’s when I realized that there’s something to this.”

Among Rhodiola boosters, personal conversion stories like this one abound—though they’re quick to say that of course there needs to be more peer-reviewed research of the highest quality, including double-blind studies. The studies that have been published, however, do show that Rhodiola has extended the life of “flies, worms and yeast.” And it's been reported that sales are growing in American health food markets, and even faster in U.S. mainstream markets, where it’s been newly introduced.

What matters for Alaskan farmers is that, compared to crops like potatoes, Rhodiola has the potential to be sold at a much higher price per acre. “The big thing we’re trying to do right now is to expand the acreage,” says Brown. There are about five acres, in total, under cultivation right now. “At 200 acres, it would be the most valuable crop in the state.”

This article originally appeared on Atlas Obscura. Visit for more stories of the strange and wondrous.

May 19 2015 10:16 AM

The USPS Facility That Deciphers Your Illegible Handwriting

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world’s hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook and Tumblr, or follow us on Twitter.

Since the world has not yet invented a robot capable of reading crappy handwriting, a team of the finest postal workers in the United States toils day and night in an effort to deliver the most indecipherable of mail.

Tucked away in a nondescript parking lot on the outskirts of Salt Lake City is the United States Postal Service Remote Encoding Center. All day, every day, workers inside sit at specialized stations as monitors present scanned pieces of correspondence with questionable addresses scrawled on their envelopes.


Shifts last eight hours, and employees are trained to take 10 seconds or less with each piece of mail as it whizzes by on their screen. It’s their job to make an educated guess as to the intent of the sender before shuffling the once questionable piece of mail along on its route of delivery.

In an age of declining penmanship, more than 5 million pieces of mail pass under its roof every day. It seems absurd that this would be the only place in the nation where unreadable mail is deciphered, yet all but one of these specialized mail centers have closed over the years. This makes the Salt Lake depot the last hope for postal customers with shoddy handwriting.

Put simply: If you have poor penmanship, all your mail passes through here without exception. Maybe consider clearly addressing a thank-you note to the folks inside one of these days?

May 18 2015 9:59 AM

The Myra Necropolises: Turkey’s Ancient Houses of the Dead

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world’s hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook and Tumblr, or follow us on Twitter.

Though archaeologists rank the exquisite necropolises at Myra in Turkey as classics of Lycian culture, the site's most beautiful elements are some of its touching, humanizing details. 

Dating back to the fourth century BC, the rock-cut tombs line the hills above Myra’s famed theater and the Church of St. Nicholas. These houses of the dead are divided into two main necropolises comprised of a mixture of house- and temple-style tombs: the ocean necropolis and the river necropolis. Colorful as they seem now, most have faded greatly over the years after having been painted brilliant shades of red, yellow, blue, and purple in their prime.


The most famous example of this was documented by early explorer Charles Fellows during his visit in 1840. Named after the lion and bull adorning its facade, the Lion Tomb also contains 11 life-size stone figures thought to represent the grave owner’s family. A number of inscriptions in ancient Greek and Lycian appear carved throughout, including one that sounds as if it could’ve been written just yesterday: “Moschos loves Philiste, the daughter of Demetrios.”

Once exclusively the provenance of the upper and middle classes, Myra’s remarkable necropolises signal the residents’ former prosperity in addition to an ongoing sense of security that translated from this world into the next.

May 15 2015 11:23 AM

Kentucky Fried Headstone: The Grave of Colonel Sanders

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world’s hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook and Tumblr, or follow us on Twitter.

Located in Kentucky's Cave Hill Cemetery, the grave of Colonel Harland Sanders, one of the most recognizable mascots in the entire world, honors the chicken man with a bust sculpted by his very own daughter. 

After working as a streetcar conductor, fireman, insurance salesman, and filling station operator, Harland Sanders was nearly destitute and living off a government pension when he finally decided to become a restaurateur at 62. After devising the concept of franchise restaurants, Sanders opened a small restaurant in Salt Lake City, Utah that would serve his "secret recipe" fried chicken that he had developed during his time serving it to travelers who passed through his filling stations. With his signature black glasses, slick white goatee, and long bow tie, the elderly entrepreneur soon became the face of his new business as he traveled the country selling his recipe to eateries like a door-to-door salesman.


His franchise plan exploded thanks to his aggressive sales strategy and grandfatherly charm. Within years, his Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurants were in every state across the country, and Sanders became a household name. By the time of his death from leukemia in 1980 at the age of 90, KFC was one of the most famous brands in the world, with over 6,000 franchises in 48 countries.

The Colonel was buried in Kentucky as one of its favorite sons. His grave was marked by a bust that was created by his daughter Margaret. He was dressed in his iconic white suit and string bow tie, looking like his marketing representation even in death.

More incredible places around the world:

May 14 2015 12:58 PM

Brussels’ Zinneke Pis Statue Is a Canine Complement to the Famous Manneken Pis

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world’s hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook and Tumblr, or follow us on Twitter.

Brussels' Manneken Pis statue is one of the most famous sculptural icons in the entire world. Recreations of the famed urinating baby can be found in gardens and fountains all over the world. Apparently, the appeal of a naked little boy draining the snake can not be underestimated.

Lesser known, however, is that the Manneken Pis not only has a female counterpart, Jeanneke Pis, but also a dog known as Zinneke Pis, who is forever lifting his leg onto a Brussels street pole. Zinneke Pis was installed in the center of Brussels, on the corner of Rue des Chartreux and Rue de Vieux-Marche, in 1998, centuries after his symbolic master was installed in the city in 1619. Like the little boy and the little girl, the pup was created life-size, but unlike its masters, the Zinneke Pis is not actually a pissing fountain, it is simply a bronze statue. Nonetheless, the metal canine is just as cute, looking a little guilty as he lets loose on the street corner.


The creator of the dog also lives in the neighborhood, and he modeled it after his own pet, which can still be seen occasionally wandering the area. It is not known how often the real dog pees in the street, but it can be well assumed that it is not as often as the eternally micturating Zinneke Pis.

More incredible places around the world:

May 13 2015 9:15 AM

One More Thing ... About Hungary’s Columbo Statue

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world’s hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook and Tumblr, or follow us on Twitter.

Thanks to a tenuous familial connection, Budapest’s Falk Miksa Street is now home to a life-size bronze reproduction of Peter Falk as America’s favorite soft-spoken detective in the rumpled coat, Columbo.

Installed in 2014 at an estimated cost of $63,000, the bronze P.I. was part of an overall rejuvenation project in the area, although exactly why the figure was chosen is a bit of a mystery. According to a quote given to the Wall Street Journal by Antal Rogán, district mayor at the time, actor Peter Falk may have been related to the 19th-century Hungarian political figure Miksa Falk, for whom the street is named, although he concedes that this connection has yet to be proved. The American Falk is known to have had Hungarian roots through his grandparents on one side of the family, but has never been definitively linked to Miksa Falk’s family.


Some have also questioned the timing of the statue’s installation given that Peter Falk died in 2011, meaning that it clearly was not meant to commemorate his passing either. Many believe that it was unveiled in time to garner votes in a general election that took place a few weeks after the figure was unveiled. Although this seems like it would have been a strange way to go about it. 

Just one more thing ... At the foot of the metal lieutenant’s feet is a bronze basset hound modeled after a local dog named Franzi, who even showed up for the unveiling. This is of course supposed to be Columbo’s droopy-faced pet, Dog. Unfortunately, the dog does not provide any further clues as to the decision-making process behind the statue’s bizarre existence. Maybe if Columbo were still alive, he could solve the case.

More incredible places around the world: