by Matt Bourie
The History of Slot Machines
Among the many different casino games, one of the most popular is the slot machine. Even though they are synonymous with land-based casinos, slot machines can also be found in other places like bus stations, hotel lobbies, airports, convenience stores and more.
In the United States, there are more than 900,000 slot machines across the country. If you are into gambling, chances are good that you’ve tried your luck with spinning a slot machine at some point.
Did you know that slot machines were invented more than 130 years ago? Like the fascinating device itself, its history is quite colorful and enthralling, too. If you want to learn more about slot machines, read on as we’re giving you more information about the history of slot machines.
What is a Slot Machine?
A slot machine is a betting device that is used by inserting tokens, coins, or an electronic card. It has characteristic reels that spin when activated to deliver an outcome.
You can find different kinds of video versions of the physical slot machines in online casinos today. It has a standard layout that features a screen displaying three or more reels that spin when it is activated. There are also modern slot machines today that still use a lever to trigger play. However, most of the now operated machines use buttons and touchscreens.
All through the years, slot machines have become a staple in casinos. Many people from all over the world love taking their chance at winning the jackpot on slot machines. But did you know that the term “slot machine” is short for nickel-in-the-slot machines? This was the term originally used for any kind of coin-operated or automatic vending machine. It only started to refer to gambling devices at the turn of the 20th century.
The British call slot machines fruit machines. Scots and Australians, on the other hand, call it a puggy or pokie. Another popular nickname for slot machines is a one-armed bandit, especially in the United States.
The First Card Machines
The Card Machine was a precursor to the modern slot machine we know today. It was developed by Sittman and Pitt in 1891. This machine had five drums holding a total of 50 card faces, which were based on the card game poker. To play, a nickel would be inserted in the machine, and then a lever would be pulled to spin the drums.
During these times, there was no mechanical payout mechanism, and prizes were given depending on the local establishment. A winning hand might get a free beer, while a big win might get a cigar or highball. The drums could also be rearranged to reduce the player’s chance of winning. A mechanical payout for this type of machine was very challenging due to all the transformations of results. The first one to have a mechanical payout would need to have fewer spinning drums.
The Birth of Slot Machines: Charles August Fey
In the late 1800s, San Francisco was a wild gold rush town. It featured saloons, cigar shops, honky-tonks, bordellos, and of course, gambling. Sometime between 1887 and 1895, a Bavarian-born mechanic named Charles August Fey invented the modern slot machine, which he called Liberty Bell.
Liberty Bell got a big leaf from the game of card-draw poker. It featured 3 spinning wheels with five symbols, such as a cracked picture of the Liberty Bell, horseshoes, hearts, spades, and diamonds. The original 10-card draw game of poker was challenging to devise into a slot machine that would deliver all possible winning combinations. By reducing the cards to three and using three spinning reels, Charles August Fey had made it easy for players to read the outcome. For example, if a spin resulted in three Liberty Bells, the player would get the largest payout of ten nickels or fifty cents.
During that time, Liberty Bell was a big hit. It kicked off an onslaught of slot machine manufacturers. In 1909, even though gambling machines were prohibited in California, Fey’s slot machines continued to become popular in other places. In fact, they were so popular that his factory could not keep up with demand from other states. There were also early slot device makers that copied Liberty Bell.
A Chicago industrialist named Herbert Mills started producing a slot machine similar to Liberty Bell in 1907, and he called it the Operator Bell. The interesting part is that bell slot machines were often placed in just about any brothel, barbershop, saloon, bowling alley, and more by 1908.
In 1985, Charles Fey created another slot machine and called it 4-11-44. It was more successful, especially at local taverns. In fact, Fey was able to quit his mechanic job to start factory production of his gambling machines. Also, instead of selling the machines, he opted to rent them to establishments, with the profits being split in half.
Charles Fey created the Card Bell in 1898. This was the first 3-reel slot machine to ever pay out in cash coins. Aside from that, he also developed other machines, including the Three Spindle, Draw Poker, and the Klondike.
In the present time, Charles August Fey is referred to as “the godfather of slots,” not only for inventing the slot machine but also for making the game very popular. However, most of the original slot machines created by Fey were lost in 1906, during the Great San Francisco Earthquake. Luckily, the original Liberty Bell machine survived. You can see it on a permanent exhibit at the Nevada State Museum as part of the Fey Collection.
The Invention of Fruit Slot Machines
In 1907, Industry Novelty Co. began producing Bell Fruit Gum, which created a new era of slot machines. In 1908, Herbert Mills capitalized on the popularity of the machines by making the so-called “bell” fruit slot machines via his Mills Novelty Company of Chicago. These machines featured symbols like apples, oranges, melons, and cherries. Also, to go around anti-gambling device laws, these slot machines did not give out cash as prizes. Instead, they gave fruit-based gums.
If you imagine cherry symbols when you hear the term slot machines, then you can thank the likes of Herbert Mills for popularizing those machines. The original machines included an image of a stick of chewing gum alongside the fruit symbols. However, it was soon replaced by a stylized Mills company logo.
In 1916, the jackpot concept was made by the Mills Novelty Company of Chicago. It is where the combination of certain symbols triggered the slot machine to throw up all the coins inside it.
In 1963, the first fully electromechanical slot machine was invented by Bally and was called the Money Honey. This slot machine had a bottomless hopper and automatic payout of up to 500 coins with the aid of an attendant. In addition to that, this machine also enabled multi-coin bets with larger payouts. It also featured different sounds and flashing lights. It was a groundbreaking discovery for gambling operators.
Soon, Bally improved how the machine handled coins and added more reels. This enabled the players to bet in higher denominations and insert more coins per spin. It also meant bigger jackpots and higher payouts for the players.
In 1978, by the time the state of New Jersey legalized gambling, Bally produced more than 90 percent of all slot machines. The number of symbols in each reel increased, which inadvertently decreased the odds of winning for the customer.
To counterbalance traction lost because of the decreased odds, Bally asked a computer engineer to raise the jackpot size. It was also the same computer programmer who incorporated the first random number generator or RNG, which allowed the outcomes to be genuinely random. With this, Bally was awarded in 1984 with the United States Patent No. 4,448,419 for the RNG concept.
In 1976, the first true video slot machine was created by Walt Fraley, who called it the Fortune Coin. It used a modified 19-inch Sony Trinitron color receiver for the display and logic boards for all slot machine functions. It was mounted in a full-size show-ready slot machine cabinet.
The first units of these slot machines were tested in Hilton Hotel in Las Vegas. It was soon given the green light by the Nevada State Gaming Commission, finding its way into most casinos in the Strip and downtown area.
After that, technology eventually allowed the linking of multiple slot machines in different sites. In 1986, the first progressive slot machine called Megabucks was invented by the slot manufacturing company International Game Technology or IGT.
The Influence of the Internet on Slot Machines
When the 1990s came, there were all kinds of activities done on the internet. People started to learn about sending emails, checking websites, and even chatting. The rise of the internet presented a big opportunity for the casino industry, most especially in video slots.
In 1994, Microgaming created the first online gambling software after the Free Trade and Processing Act by Antigua and Barbuda was passed, which enabled the establishment of online casinos. The very first online casino was Internet Gaming Inc. or ICI, which was launched in 1995. It was followed by InterCasino in 1996 and many more casino sites in the next decade or so.
In these online casinos, such as Slot Madness, online slots became some of the most popular games available. However, in 2006, the popularity of online casinos and online slots was cut short when the US Senate passed the Unlawful Internet Gaming Enforcement Act. This law made it illegal for US residents to remit or withdraw money from online casino sites. But slot games are slowly gaining traction with American players as more states, such as Illinois and Philadelphia, continue to pass laws and regulations that recognize online casinos.
In the present time, online casinos reach a worldwide population of gamers, bringing the fun of slot machines into anyone’s home. Many modern digital slot machine designs and gameplay are being created by developers constantly. They are pushing the boundaries in their quest for the most exciting, fun, and original slot machines.
The slot machines that we know today indeed have a rich and interesting history. It is amazing to know that a simple game invented back then is able to become a more complex and entertaining casino game both in land-based casinos and in the online gambling world. From America, it has gained popularity in other parts of the world through the years.
In addition to the fun that it provides people, slot machines can also help provide additional revenue for the local government. No wonder a lot of local municipalities like the idea of allowing the gambling industry to strive.
With the advancement of technology, including virtual reality, blockchain, and artificial intelligence (AI), fans of slot machines can expect more developments and enhancements to the classic game that they love and see another exciting stage in slot machine history. They can expect more slot machine variations, and as well as more advanced bonus rounds and varied video graphics.
For gamblers who like to play slots at online casinos be sure to look for no deposit bonuses which will allow you to play for free without depositing any money or giving any credit card information.
So the next time you play slot machines in a land-based casino or try your luck in online slots, you now know how they started and came to be the slot machines that we know today. We hope that this post helped you learn more about the interesting history of slot machines.
Matt Bourie is the editor of the American Casino Guide book. He has been writing about casinos for more than 12 years and he also co-hosts the American Casino Guide YouTube channel which has had more than 40 million views. A new video is released each month that discusses a new casino gambling topic and you subscribe for FREE at https://www.youtube.com/americancasinoguide