It’s that eureka moment. The moment when all the pieces fall into place and history is made. Most inventions are driven by a process of evolution and refinement: think scissors, light bulb, bicycle. The slot machine was no exception.
Our hero, Bavarian immigrant and mad inventor Charles Fey, has been making mechanical betting machines for nearly five years. He’s quit his job and business is booming. With each iteration, his product continues to improve.
Players can now bet more to win more, they can ‘choose a bet’ and play specific colours. His final enhancement: the machine can now pay out its winnings automatically. There’s no need to employ an attendant or distract a busy barman from his work.
Two’s Company, Three’s Perfect
Fey needed to reduce the number of winning combinations to enable a mechanical payout. To do this, he disregarded the poker win table format, which required five reels, and used three reels instead. This generated fewer winning combinations but made automation viable.
Now Fey was no longer using poker hands as the winning combinations, there was no need to exclusively use playing card iconography. To the card suits, Fey added horseshoes, stars, and the cracked Liberty Bells. 20 symbols in total with six winning combinations.
The machine was compact and sturdy: sheet metal reinforced by a brass frame, riveted and soldered together, standing on four sturdy feet. It was 1899. In the next 50 years more than half a million ‘Bell’ machines would be manufactured.
Until now, Fey had had little or no competition. Bars and gambling venues that wanted to offer players the chance to play the new Liberty Bell slot had to pay Fey a 50% commission rate. Fey flatly refused to share distribution or manufacturing rights with anyone.
A Business Jackpot
The Mills Novelty Company was a Chicago-based business, manufacturing coin operated vending machines. It started trading as the MBM Cigar Vending Company. In 1897, seizing on the popularity of the new gaming machines, the company produced the Mills Owl – an upright cabinet slot machine and a commercial success.
In 1898, founder Mortimer Mills sold a controlling interest of the business to his son Herbert who renamed the business to the Mills Novelty Company. Herbert’s collaboration with Fey in 1907 resulted in the Mills Liberty Bell. The basic design of the machine is still used in slots today.
In 1909, San Francisco banned the slots. There were about 3,300 machines in the city. To get around the law, Fey and his competitors turned back time and – once again – produced machines with no coin slots that paid out in drinks and cigars. Most of the manufacturers also relocated to more liberal Chicago.
Another technique for circumventing the moral minority, was renaming the machines ‘chewing gum dispensers’ and changing the symbols on the wheels from suit symbols to fruit.
The machines really did pay out in gum and the flavour of gum was often determined by the win line. This is where the cherry and melon symbols came from. The image of a pack of chewing gum is the origin of the classic BAR symbol.
In 1910, the Mills Novelty Company produced its most streamlined machine to date, which included a gooseneck coin deposit slot and fruit symbols on the reels Although each machine weighed more than 100 pounds, 30,000 were manufactured and the business was now international with significant sales in Europe.
In 1916, Mills made its final major contribution to the slot machine: the ‘jackpot’. Players could now completely empty the machine, if they hit correct combination of symbols.
With prohibition in 1919, the consumption and supply of alcohol was made illegal in the United States. The nationwide ban lasted until 1933. The slot machines ended up in the speakeasies and the cash payouts returned. Managers figured they were already breaking law with the sale of alcohol so why not bring back the cash payout.
The machines were also made both quieter and lighter, manufactured in wood with the bells removed. In Nevada, in 1931, gambling was legalised. Bugsy Siegel was one of the first casino proprietors to embrace the games, adding the exciting new machines to the casino floor of the legendary Las Vegas Flamingo Hilton.
As for the man who started it all. In January, 1944, Charles Fey sold his company to his long time foreman. He had spent 50 years in the business. In that time, he had never stopped improving, evolving, and developing his machines. He died nine months later at the age of 82.
By the end of the 1950s, the mechanical era was almost at an end and Big Bertha was about to make her electro-mechanical debut. Eight reels, 20 symbols per reel, and $150,000 if you wanted to own her.
Higher jackpots, multiple coin play, Bally… Money Honey… the bottomless hopper, and the 500 coin unattended pay out. Catch up on the electric generation next time in part three.