There is not much sadder in a bowling alley than seeing a wee lad or lassie just a few years old have his or her excitement dashed by an inability to avoid throwing a gutter ball. The wide-eyed enthusiasm with which they enter the bowling alley is immediately shut down with tears of frustration. They just aren't physically able to keep the ball on the lane consistently enough to hit any pins.
If Only We Could Do Away With Gutters...
Enter bumper bowling. When the gutters are eliminated from play, every shot has a chance to knock down some pins. No more tears over yet another gutter ball. No more kids quitting the game before they have the strength to actually give it a real chance. Bumper bowling makes the sport accessible to countless people who would've previously loathed it or even not tried it.
Phil Kinzer is credited as the inventor of bumper bowling, first using cardboard tubes to block the gutters at his bowling center (Jupiter Lanes Bowling Center in Dallas, Texas) as an attempt to keep his own son from sobbing with frustration over another gutter ball.
Business soon exploded both there and around the world. Bowling parties for school events and adults with special needs became a big source of revenue for bowling centers, and the popularity of bowling in general increased.
Evolution of the Bumpers
After Kinzer's cardboard tubes, bowling centers acquired inflatable tubes that could be placed into the gutters for those requiring bumpers and easily removed after their sessions.
When inflating and deflating those tubes became too much maintenance, a more practical upgrade was in store. Retractable rails that can be raised directly out of the gutter (patented by Kinzer) are now the most common bumpers seen in bowling alleys around the world.
Bowling For Everyone
Bumper bowling helps get people excited in the sport who wouldn't otherwise give it a fair chance. Many kids start with bumpers and make it a goal to hit the pins without hitting the bumpers, ultimately working toward bowling without bumpers.
Regardless of whether you never use the bumpers, start on the bumpers with the intent of moving past that phase or intend to always use the bumpers, bumper bowling was a very important innovation and a main reason bowling is the top recreational sport in America. Without bumper bowling, it's safe to say there would be many less bowling alleys operating successfully around the world.