The machine consists of a vertical board with interleaved rows of pins. Balls are dropped from the top, and bounce left and right as they hit the pins. Eventually, they are collected into one-ball-wide bins at the bottom. The height of ball columns in the bins approximates a bell curve.
Overlaying Pascal's triangle onto the pins shows the number of different paths that can be taken to get to each pin.
A large-scale working model of this device can be seen at the Museum of Science, Boston.
If a ball bounces to the right k times on its way down (and to the left on the remaining pins) it ends up in the kth bin counting from the left. Denoting the number of rows of pins in a bean machine by n the number of paths to the kth bin on the bottom is given by the binomial coefficient . If the probability of bouncing right on a pin is p (which equals 0.5 on an unbiased machine) the probability that the ball ends up in the kth bin equals . This is the probability mass function of a binomial distribution.
According to the central limit theorem the binomial distribution approximates normal distribution provided that n, the number of rows of pins in the machine, is large.
Several games have been developed utilizing the idea of pins changing the route of balls or other objects:
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