The History of Slot Machines
When discussing slot machine history, you’re also talking about fruit machine history and the history of pokies. The latter two terms originated in the UK and Australia, but they’re talking about the same thing: a vending machine form a gambling where coins are inserted in the hopes of hitting a predetermined series of symbols and winning a cash payout.
Slot Machine History
Slot machine history begins with inventor Charles Fey, although variations existed prior to his creation of the first modern slot. Throughout the later years of the 19th century, gamblers were drawn to a game manufactured by Sittman and Pitt of Brooklyn, New York. Known as “nickel-in-the-slot-machine,“ five spindles displayed various playing cards, and payouts were based on forming winning hands. These early machines only displayed 50 cards from a 52-card deck, however, so the chances of hitting the best hands were greatly diminished. But players didn’t seem to mind, and gamblers lined up for the chance to win drinks and cigars by playing a game that resembles the modern form of video poker.
Charles Fey, Inventor of the Liberty Bell
All that changed when Charles Fey invented the Liberty Bell, the first example of the modern slot machine. Three spinning reels were included, and each was adorned with symbols ranging from horseshoes to bells. A lever on the side of the machine was pulled in order to spin the reels, and getting combinations of symbols resulted in a payout. The lever or arm on the side of the machine–as well as the tendency of the game to take a player’s money–resulted in the nickname of “one-armed bandits.” Examples of these original Liberty Bell games can be seen by visiting the Liberty Belle Saloon and Restaurant in Reno, Nevada.
Herbert Mills, “Inventor” of the Mills Liberty Bell
Charles Fey was rather protective of his invention, and he passed on numerous requests to sell or lease his Liberty Bell machines. One was stolen from a San Francisco saloon in 1905, and within a year a competing slot machine known as the Mills Liberty Bell–or Operator Bell–had appeared. Herbert Mills took an assembly-line approach to his slots, allowing him to outpace his competitors and earning him the reputation as the “Henry Ford of slot machines.” By 1908, slot machines could be found in bowling alleys, cigar stores, brothels, and even barber shops.
Slot Machines and the Law
In 1909, laws were passed that prohibited slot machines from dispensing money to winners. Chewing gum was given away instead, and this is where the fruit and bar symbols on modern slot machines come from.
When prohibition became a reality in 1919, the saloons that held many slot machines were closed down. Slot machines, along with liquor, were moved to illegal “speakeasies,” and slots reverted back to paying cash prizes to winners.
When gambling became legal in Nevada in 1931, slot machines continued their rise in popularity. Since these new casinos needed large numbers of slot machines to entertain their customers (especially the wives of poker and craps players), an industry sprang up to meet the demand.
The Bally Revolution
Bally made slot machine history in 1964 by introducing the multi-coin, electric-powered Money Honey. It even featured sound
effects, a tip of the cap to the company‘s history as a pinball manufacturer. The modern age of slots had officially begun.
Bally had no intentions of resting on their laurels, though, and over the years they added more coins, more reels, and hoppers capable of holding bigger payouts. In 1978, it was estimated that Bally’s held a 90% slice of the slot machine pie. But one of their most important innovations came when they raised the amount of money that could be wagered. Penny and nickel games still existed, but they now stood side-by-side with $25 and even $100 games. This also increased the jackpots to levels capable of changing a player’s life with a single pull of the lever (or push of the button).
Players responded by pouring into places such as Las Vegas and Atlantic City, all dreaming of becoming a millionaire by playing the slots. This dream continues, and advances in technology have ensured that slot machine history is still being written.