It’s 1891, the United States of America. The Wrigley Company is founded in Chicago selling soap and baking powder. It will be 12 months before chewing gum arrives. In New York, Carnegie Hall has its grand opening with Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky conducting.
Mark Twain writes of a Gilded Age: a period of economic growth and high wages. Railroads are the backbone of industry, with immigration fuelling rapid growth in the western states. The United States is the economic giant of the world, leaving Europe in the shadows.
Skyscrapers climb higher. Inventors apply for more than 500,000 patents between 1860 and 1890. It is an age of prosperity, urbanisation, and invention. It is the perfect environment for the birth of the slot machine.
The First Spin
In 1891, the Sittman and Pitt company created the world’s first mechanical betting machine. The Brooklyn based business produced a five drum/reel poker machine.
Each reel had drawings of ten different playing cards. This totalled 50 cards which meant two cards were removed. Hence the machines were nicknamed ‘drop-card’ machines.
The dropped cards were normally the ten of spades and the jack of hearts. This made it very difficult for players to hit the jackpot Royal Flush. The machines cost a nickel a spin. There was no way to draw new cards. When the reels stopped – that was your hand.
Prizes were at the discretion of the bar. Nothing came out the machine. You would just let the barman know you had hit a pair and enjoy your free drink, cigar, or whatever was on offer.
The poker game was so popular, nearly every bar in New York City had at least one machine and it wasn’t long before they made the 3,000 mile journey to unofficial gambling capital of the world: San Francisco.
The Wild West lived up to its name. In San Francisco, there were more than 3,117 licensed bars – one bar for every 96 citizens. This proliferation made the city a gambling machine hot spot.
Enter Augustinus (Charlie) Fey. Fey was born in Vohringen, Bavaria on February 2, 1862. He was the youngest of 16 children and had been an apprentice as an instrument maker in a British shipyard.
Fey arrived in San Francisco in 1885 and got a job with the California Electric Works. After work, he would head out for a drink and was fascinated by the new mechanical poker machines arriving from the east. He decided to make his own.
In 1895, he completed his first machine: the elegantly named Fey 4-11-44. The machine looked like a grandfather clock and was based on the popular lottery game ‘Policy’.
Policy is a simple numbers game that dates back to the Italian lottery around 1530. Players would pick three numbers – known as a ‘gig’ – and 4-11-44 was a favourite with many people. These three numbers were known as the ‘Washerwoman’s Gig’.
Fey’s new wheel of fortune style machine bought into the superstition, with 4-11-44 being the $5 jackpot combination. The game was an instant hit. There is only one surviving example of the machine which is held at the Fey Collection in Nevada.
Buoyed by success, Fey quit his job and set up shop. Between 1896 and 1899, Fey continued to develop his games. Wins were still paid by an attendant because it was not (yet) mechanically possible for the machines to pay out.
In 1896, the Fey Three Spindle awarded prizes ranging from 5 to 25 nickels. Paid out when three spinning arrows landed in similar numbers. One year later, the Fey 6-Way allowed players to increase their stake – betting up to six nickels in one play for a bigger payout.
In 1897 the Fey Klondike introduced another aspect of slots gaming, by allowing players to bet on a preferred colour. Bet the right colour and you win. Finally, the last piece of the puzzle was put into place with the arrival of the 1898 Fey Liberty Bell with card symbols.
This machine was the first slot machine that could pay out awards automatically. To make this happen, Fey removed two of the reels. The new three reel machine would automate the entire process.
There is only one 1898 card Liberty Bell machine in existence. Fey saved it from the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. The following year, Fey would replace the card symbols with suit symbols, horseshoes, and the iconic Liberty Bell.
The new machine would set the standard for automated slots for years to come and provide the foundations for every slot machine since. More on this next time….
TO BE CONTINUED…