Slot machines have a very rich history and they have earned their place at the forefront of today’s huge multi-million dollar gambling industry. A casino owner in 1940 thought they would be great to keep the wives of professional big-time gamblers entertained while the husbands got down to the real business of gambling, Who could have known that that they would become one of the most popular gambling games of all time? Slots are purely a game of chance requiring no prior knowledge or experience to play them. As the slot machine developed over the years, the flashing lights and ringing bells that were added have continued to add to the endless fascination for this game.
The general belief is that the invention of the slot machine should be attributed to Charles Fey, but already in 1881 Sittman and Pitt, a company in New York, had a Poker machine which provided the template for Charles’ slot machine. They had produced a machine that was a mixture of a Poker game and a slot machine. It had the slot in which the coin was deposited, but in place of reels it had five drums each carrying 50 cards. By inserting the coin, the cards spun not the drums, and when they stopped, five cards would be lined up just like a card playing Poker hand. These machines were called “Trade Simulators” as the players deposited coins and won merchandise, not money. Charles Fey however, is the father of the automatic-play slot machine.
In 1887, the first slot machine was invented by Charles Fey a German immigrant to America. It was a mechanical device which had 3 reels and each reel consisted of ten printed symbols, such as horseshoes, spades, diamonds, hearts and bells. To play the machine, the player inserted a coin into a slot, and then they had to pull a handle on the side of the machine to get the reels spinning. When three bells appeared after the spin, you had won the jackpot. The machine became known as the ‘Bell’ machine, which soon turned into the “Liberty Bell” machine named after the Liberty Bell in Pennsylvania, an iconic symbol of American independence. Before this invention, other coin operated games of chance did exist, but most of them were Poker machines and the players were rewarded with a cigar or a free drink when they won.
The design of Fey’s machine became the standard that all future slot machines would be based on. Because patent laws at that time did not cover gambling devices, Fey decided to rent out his machines instead. He had them installed in gambling saloons and other locations in return for 50% on every win. A very clever idea when you come to think of it. In the early days there was not much money in the winning jackpots as the machine only had 3 reels and 10 symbols on each reel which equaled 1 000 combinations, making the winners amount 750 coins. This resulted in the house earning a 25% profit. With strict gambling laws in place, Fey’s machine listed drinks as the prizes, but the gamblers actually received coins. In later years, some of the machines gave out mints or gum in further attempts to get around the gambling laws.
As time went on, Fey realized he needed a bigger machine that would pay out a bigger jackpot. In 1907 he went into partnership with Herbert Mills and the Mills Novelty Company. Together they produced 30 000 new machines called the “Operators Bell”. It had 3 reels again, but this time there were 20 different symbols on each reel. The new symbols were of different fruits. In addition, the coin slot became a ‘gooseneck’ design. These slot machines were extremely heavy and weighed well over 100 pounds – mainly owing to their cast iron ‘feet’! After this, the Mills Company produced a more refined slot machine that did not make so much noise – it was called the ‘Silent Bell’ and had a double jackpot.
After 1915, the cast iron machines were discarded in favor of wooden cabinets. Next, the cabinets were made with a theme and with colorful designs. The first one was the ‘Lion Head’ in 1931, then there was the ‘War Eagle’ and the ‘Roman Head’, and in 1933, it was the ‘Castle Front’. With the advent of these attractive looking slot machines, the popularity of the game began to grow. More innovations were in the pipeline with the manufacture of Big Bertha and Super Big Bertha. These were the first two slot machines to be mechanically driven. They had 8 reels and 20 symbols on each one. During the late 1940s, gambling received another boost with the appearance of gangsters and people suddenly having a lot of cash after the leanness of the war years.
The love of slot machines gathered momentum and spread across America even though gambling was still not legal in some states. Bugsy Siegal, the owner of the Flamingo Casino in Las Vegas, had slot machines installed in his casino as a diversion for the wives and girlfriends of professional gamblers who played the tables. If only he knew how successful and popular they would become!
By the 1980s, almost every slot machine worked with a microchip, making them less expensive to make and more profitable for the casinos. Today there are thousands of different kinds of slot machines – even some based on movie stars and cartoon characters. And Charles Fey never lived to see the great success of his wonderful invention that changed the gambling industry forever.