The History of Slot Machines

It All Started With A "Bright" Idea

History Slot Machines

“America’s greatest inventor” Thomas Edison once said: “To invent, you need a good imagination and a pile of junk.” This is not very far off from the conception and invention of what is now a piece of Americana: the slot machine.

SlotDawg would not be possible without innovations made to slot machines over the past 120+ years. To get a feel for our roots, we’re taking a look at the history of slot machines that would inspire generations of gamers and developers to take part in a rapidly growing industry.

The First Slot Machine Rings In New Entertainment

The first mechanical slot machine was invented by Bavarian-born American inventor and car mechanic Charles Fey in 1895 in San Francisco. It was made of cast iron and used horseshoes, bells, and card suit marks on its metal reels. Fey dubbed it the “Liberty Bell” for its signature “ding!” when players received the highest payout with three bell symbols in a row. It also harkened back to the original Liberty Bell, the iconic symbol of American independence from the Revolutionary War period. Frey sold his machines to saloons on a 50/50 profit split. It grew so successful so quickly that he quit his job as a mechanic to produce these slot machines full-time out of his basement.

Charles Fey Slot Machine

(Photo: TechPrevue)

In this time period, coin-operated gambling machines with elementary games, such as two toy horses that would race each other when a coin was inserted, inspired wagering from patrons. Proprietors would pay winning patrons in drinks, cigars, or trade checks that could be cashed in for refreshments. With Fey’s invention, patrons could now receive real monetary rewards.

As with many great ideas, the Liberty Bell was copied by many of Fey’s competitors, most notably the Herbert Mills Novelty Company of Chicago. Their machine had just one difference: it was named the Operator Bell. Fey went on to create other popular inventions, such as the trade check separator, which was used inside the Liberty Bell. The separator had a special pin that detected fake nickels versus real nickels.

A Brief Intermission

Although slot machines were popular, they were deeply opposed by the clergy and the law due to morality concerns that surrounded the Prohibition era. As a result, San Francisco banned them in 1909, with the entirety of California and Nevada soon following suit. Most slot machine factories then moved to Chicago. To slot machine manufacturers, this banishment wasn’t the end of the world; it was a minor setback that required a little more creativity for the future.

To sidestep the law, Fey and competitors built machines with no coin slots. This made pay-ins and payouts more of a covert operation, performed in secret at the saloon counter. The Industry Novelty Company took it a step further by calling their machines “chewing gum dispensers” to evade legal restrictions. Reel symbols represented the different flavors of gum (three cherries = cherry-flavored gum) that were some of the first ubiquitous lemon, cherry, and plum slot symbols forever ingrained in the American psyche. The Herbert Mills Novelty Company also came out with its “Jackpot” machine in 1916 that flushed out all the coins in the machine when certain combinations of symbols appeared on the reels.

Slot Machines Take Off

Slot machines continued to be popular throughout the ‘20’s and ‘30’s. But, when the depression hit, slot machines could only be played in private due to consistent legal regulations. After WWII, slot machines were accepted globally because of the prospect of increased tax revenue. The 1950’s and ‘60’s ushered in electromechanical slots with multiple payout schemes, like 3- and 5-coin multipliers, whereby the payout was proportional to the number of coins put in the machine before the lever was pulled.

Bally, one of the largest slot developers of our time, made the first electromechanical  “fruit machine” in 1963 called Money Honey. It featured more fruits, like oranges, melons, lemons, and cherries, with an electric “hopper.” The hopper was unique in that it was initially invented for banks as a way to automatically count coins, which enabled Money Honey to hold significantly more coins than its forebears. Jackpots grew dramatically because hundreds of coins could be dispensed in one go, as opposed to just a handful previously.

The Modern Age

Video slot machines – where simulated games are played on a monitor – were created by the Fortune Coin Company and introduced to Las Vegas in 1975. Strangely, these did not take off in the way people thought. Players were skeptical when it came to the technology and its nontraditional approach to the games. Pulling the lever, hearing the reels fall into place, and watching cascading coins was all part of the slot experience. Luckily, the International Gaming Technology company (IGT) saw the potential and purchased Fortune Coin. IGT eventually grew into the slot machine giant it is today and one of the foremost authorities on video reel slots.

Modern slot machines combine the two, synchronizing the best in digital gaming technology and familiar aspects of slots to retain mass appeal. Mobile apps and online gaming, for example, shift games to a personal interface. Today’s slot machines focus on creating an inclusive experience with games tailored to consumer interests. Slot games resemble the immersive qualities of video games, which have dedicated storylines, characters, and consequences for certain moves. Pop culture references also consider customer tastes. Games with Sons of Anarchy, James Bond, Wheel of Fortune, Michael Jackson: King of Pop, and Wizard of Oz themes appeal to a wide spectrum of personalities and ages.

All this from a pile of junk.

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