History of Slot Machines

Old fashioned three-reel slot machine.

Could you imagine the sights and sounds of the casino floor without the slot machine? Its flashing lights, ringing bells, and the enticing tingle of crashing coins make the experience whole. Or even the vast collection of online slots available on your smartphone? Yet they have not always been a permanent fixture in gambling establishments or online.

Coin-operated machines started to appear around 1880. Novelty machines would sit in bars, attracting wagers from drinkers and patrons. It was not long before this healthy competition was incorporated into a machine itself.

The Origin of Slot Machines

The first step made in the slots origin was with the automated card machine. Invented by Sittman and Pitt, they released their first device to the public in 1891. It consisted of a dial that contained five different drums, each holding fifty playing cards. Placing a coin in the device would spin the drums, with winning hands based on the ones used in poker.

The 1887 Sittman and Pitt slot machine

Sittman and Pitt’s machine could not take the mantle of the first slot machine as it did not provide any pay out. If a good hand arrived, then the bar owner would offer a prize, such as a beer. Two cards were also removed from the standard deck, so this made getting certain hands totally impossible.

Liberty Bell

The next great advancement in slots history was the Liberty Bell machine. It had fewer possible winning combinations than the Sittman and Pitt Card machine allowing it to provide the first mechanical pay out. Invented by Charles Fey, this Bavarian immigrant had come to the USA to find his fortune during the gold rush. Two of his earlier machines, the Horseshoe and 4-11-44 had already proved popular.

Charles Fry's Liberty Bell slot machine.

This new machine consisted of a mere three spinning reels. Each had diamonds, spades, and hearts painted upon it and the image of a cracked liberty bell. If you hit three liberty bells in a row, you would get the grand pay out and win big.

Fey did not rest on his laurels and carried on devising a range of gambling inventions. He invented a draw poker machine and devices known as Draw Power, Klondike, and the Three Spindles. One of his most useful inventions was the Trade Check Separator, which could detect fake coins that had been placed in the machine.

The Fruit Machine is Born

The Liberty Bell would prove to be a tremendous success. Fey himself would lease them to bars and split the profits 50/50. Each was hand-made in a small workshop by the inventor himself, though he struggled to keep up with demand. Refusing to sell the rights, it was only a matter of time before imitators began to spring up.

1907 Herbert Mills Operator Bell slot.

When it comes to the history of slot machines, one of the most popular of these was the Operator Bell. A homage to the Liberty Bell, it was created by Chicago manufacturer Herbert Mills. Responding to a ban on cash-based machines, his system would dispense fruit-flavoured gum and sweets. Instead of symbols from playing cards, fruits such as cherries and lemons were on the dial. It was also the first time the famous bar symbol would be included on a machine, and it was based on the company logo. Hence, the term ‘fruit machine’ was born.

The First Electromechanical Slots

After the war, the US government was lured by tax incentives to promote money-based gambling again, and coin slots returned. One of the biggest technological leaps forward came from Bally which started as a Chicago pinball manufacturing company.

1961 slot game from Bally

They began to make inroads into gambling equipment, improving the mechanical slots that had gone before. Their 1964 Money Honey machine pushed the concept of a slot on, being the first electromechanical device in existence. All the reels worked using electricity, though the operating mechanism of pulling the arm was still in place. It also included the new feature of a bottomless hopper, which allowed the machine to dispense a vast number of coins in one go.

Video Slots

In 1971, the Atari company released the Pong videogame. A gaming boom followed, and video slots were a natural progression that blended the two. The first video slot machine came in 1976 and was known as the Fortune Coin, created by the Fortune Coin Company. Featuring a 19-inch Sony CRT television as the display, it appeared grandly at the Las Vegas Hilton. After approval from the Nevada State Gaming Commission, it was released to the rest of the Vegas strip.

Fortune Coin one armed slot machine.

1986 saw the introduction of the first progressive jackpot on a slot machine: ‘Megabucks’ by IGT. These machines had a pot made by taking a small fraction of each wager. When it was not won, this progressive jackpot increased to enormous amounts. This would see machines in a casino link together for one grand jackpot. All you need to do is look at the amounts that have been won on online progressive slots to see how popular they remain to this day.

Megabucks slot machine from IGT

Slots Move Online

The first online casino was developed by Microgaming in the mid-1990s, and would mark the beginning of online gaming for real money. In 1996 WMS Industries came up with the first second-screen video slot game: ‘Reel ‘Em In’. This game opened up a second screen for the bonus round, an innovation which has been widely imitated and improved upon over the following decades. The first online jackpot slot game was ‘Cash Splash’ (another Microgaming creation) and this game has been responsible for some of the biggest jackpot payouts of all time.

Reel Em In slot game from WMS

It would not take too long for online slots to move from computers to phones. Wireless application protocol arrived with the first generation of Nokia mobile phones. Creators of games could collect payments via SMS or WAP push. This would then allow people to download their games, and the first wave of these was several casino-based titles.

However, people could not place bets or wagers on the actual games when using their phones. This would not be possible until the arrival of Apple’s iOS and Android operating systems. Now much closer to a small computer than a traditional phone, these games were a better appropriation of video slots found in a casino. With the rise of commercial internet, whole casinos began to flourish online and on mobile devices. Online slots and the world of iGaming had been born.

Male pit boss illustration

Did You Know?

The very first slot machine did not use many of the symbols we’ve come to know and love, such as fruits or BAR. This rudimentary device from 1891 was based on combinations of 50 playing cards, with poker hands such as the Full House serving as a winning spin.

Ross O’Connor has been working in the online gaming industry for almost a decade. Over that time he has written countless articles on related topics including casino and game reviews, gaming strategy and casino industry news, for a wide variety of online publications.

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