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By Dale Shelabarger, Updated:
Slot machines are among the most popular gambling games in the world, and have a very interesting history. Dominating most land-based casinos floors, as well as the pages of their online counterparts, they’ve been a mainstay in the industry for many, many years. Most of today’s machines are heavily computerised and use advanced random number generators powered by the very latest processing technology – a far cry from their humble 19th century origins.
In its most basic, traditional form, a mechanical slot machine requires a player to insert a coin. This unlocks a side-handle that when pulled, starts a set of reels spinning. These reels are decorated with various symbols and eventually stop in sequence, often from left to right. Perforations in small plates contained within the spinning wheels and which correspond with their symbols, trigger a pay-out when they line up in certain combinations. Although a relatively straightforward process, for 19th century inventors, devising such a mechanism required a fair amount of toil and tears.
Things began in the history of the slot machine rather tentatively during the 1870s with counter-top units known as ‘trade stimulators’. These often sat next to cash registers at cigar shops or confectionery stores and were there to encourage patrons to indulge in a quick game of chance at the expense of a few more cents. Some of them dispensed fruit-flavoured chewing gum with corresponding images on their reels such as the ubiquitous cherry and melon symbols that we still see today.
The most famous trade stimulator, the Guessing Bank, was created by New Yorker, Edward McLoughlin in 1876. A coin was inserted causing a dial to spin and then stop on a random number. The player guessed the number on which they thought the dial would land, making a note of their choice before putting their money in – if correct, they won a prize. All rather primitive by today’s standards. But these counter-top contraptions were essentially prototypes for the units which started to appear in the last decade of the 19th century.
In 1890, Ideal Toy Company from Chicago introduced a machine which was designed to automate the game of poker. The insertion of a coin triggered five reels which spun and came to a stop when a full poker hand had been displayed. The player with the most valuable hand won a prize which could then be collected from the attendant. This is the reason why playing cards are still used to decorate slot reels.
Brooklyn-based company, Sittman and Pitt produced a slightly more sophisticated version in 1893 which comprised of five drums, of which each contained 50 card faces. It was fed nickels and allowed players to pull a lever in the hope of landing the best poker hand. The machine soon became popular with the general public and was installed in the gaudy taverns and drinking holes found throughout the borough and beyond. Although it couldn’t pay-out any money, local proprietors got around this by rewarding winners with free alcohol. However, in order to preserve their cellars, many took to adjusting the machines to make the odds more favourable to the house.
The first slot machine in history to offer automatic pay-outs was created by John Lighton in 1892. Named the 3 for 1, it featured a crude but effective design that consisted of two coin channels – one led to the machine’s cash box and the other was fitted with a lever. When this lever was tripped, another two coins were released in addition to the original deposit.
A year later, an inventor named Gustav Schultze combined Lighton’s 3 for 1 system with a spinning dial mechanism which he called the Automatic Check Machine. Once again a side lever was included that span a dial which came to a halt on a coloured wheel. When landing on a certain colour, a bell sounded and two coins released with a token for money. Despite its brief popularity, the 3 for 1 was soon rendered obsolete by a revolutionary new slot machine from an inventor by the name of Charles Fey.
Charles Fey, Automatic Pay-Outs and the Bell Variants
Up until 1898, card machines like the 3 for 1 were by far the most popular slot games, despite the lack of any pay-out system Difficulties lay in the endless winning combinations which could arise from the five drum, ten-card format being used. Although automated pay-outs were available in slot machines, they were small and infrequent due to the machines’ limited capacity for coins.
Charles Fey initially tried to solve this problem by attempting to add a pay-out mechanism to a five-reel poker machine. However, when this proved too difficult, Fey decided to reduce the complexity of reading a win by using just three reels. The new slot machine was completed in 1898 and was the first in history to offer automatic pay-outs on all winning combinations. Christened the Card Bell, the innovative slot had three reels imprinted with playing-card symbols which could be set in motion by pulling a lever. Wins were achieved by lining up winning poker hands, much like Sittman and Pitt’s machine.
Because gamblers were no longer playing for poker hands, Fey decided to remove the card symbols replacing them with images of horseshoes, stars and bells. Renamed the Liberty Bell, the updated slot offered a ten-nickel jackpot and became a sensation in Fey’s home town of San Francisco. In spite of this, the now famous inventor was reluctant to expand production beyond the California state line.
Instead, he opted to strike deals with local bar owners, allowing them to install his highly sought-after machine in their establishments in exchange for a 50% stake in the takings. Despite initial success, Fey’s cautious approach eventually proved fateful when, in 1906, the San Francisco earthquake struck, destroying his factory and workshops. This led either directly or indirectly to the acquisition of the liberty bell by competitor Herbert Mills.
There are various stories from the history about just how Herbert Mills got his hands on Fey’s ground-breaking slot machine. Some say that he instructed an employee to ‘acquire’ one from a San Francisco tavern so that its inner workings could be studied and then copied. Others insist that he struck a deal with an impoverished Fey who was still reeling (pun not intended) from the Great Earthquake.
Whatever the truth, by 1907 Herbert Mills had acquired the rights to the liberty bell and wasted little time in putting it into mass production. After making the machine available nationwide for the first time, its popularity soared. In turn, the big manufacturers soon caught on and began to produce them on an industrial scale until well into the 1960s. Such was the sophistication of the Liberty Bell, the the slot machine industry saw very few innovations of the next fifty years or so.
In spite of their undoubted success and extended production life, mechanical slot machines were hampered by one particular problem. Because they only used three reels, the number of possible combinations was cubic. So a slot with three reels and ten symbols on each could only return 1000 possible outcomes.
Consequently, there was very little room for additional pay-outs which resulted in rather boring, high-variance gameplay. To make matters worse, wins of more than $25 dollars had to be paid by an attendant. Things began to change in 1963 with the unveiling of the first truly electromechanical slot machine – the Money Honey.
The Money Honey was developed by Bally Entertainment and was electronically powered. It also included a bottomless hopper that allowed for bigger pay-outs of up to 500 coins, thus removing the need for assistance from an attendant. In addition, the Money Honey was operated by buttons instead of the traditional side-lever. Unsurprisingly, it became a huge hit resulting in a major upturn in fortunes for Bally.
By the mid-to-late 1960s, the company was producing more than 90% of all casino slots in Las Vegas. Among its expanding product list were popular machines such as the 80, which offered a pay-out proportional to the deposit. Many of the slots created during this time were also capable of monitoring multiple pay-lines and coin plays, with some even able to chart progressive jackpots.
By the 1970s, manufacturers had started to use solid-state circuitry in their slots resulting in the first fully-electronic units. These soon started to incorporate microprocessor components to help control internal system mechanisms such as the reels. By far the most important of these new advancements was the random number generator. Essentially a small computer, random number generators are able to determine symbol combinations and pay-outs more accurately, while offering a more sophisticated, predictable method for ensuring accurate RTPs. Their introduction opened up new avenues in game interface design, allowing manufacturers to use video screens to display reels. The Fortune Coin Company was this first to take full advantage.
In 1975, Walt Fraley launched the Fortune Coin Video Slot. Featuring a modified 19-inch Sony Trinitron video screen, this Fortune Coin made use of random number generators and logic boards to control all of its functions. The first units went on trial with the Las Vegas Hilton Hotel and, following a number of modifications, were approved by the Nevada State Gaming Commission.
Although players were initially cautious, the machine eventually caught on and became especially popular on the Las Vegas strip. After International Gaming Technology’s (IGT) takeover of the Fortune Coin Company in 1980, the unit was improved further with the addition of multiple pay-lines.
Flushed from their success with the Fortune Coin Slot, IGT began to produce more advanced versions. It had become evident that video slots held clear advantages of over mechanical reels, especially when it came to maintenance and reliability. That they were also tamper-proof and nigh on impossible to cheat made them even more attractive propositions to casino operators. And so began the video slot era, which continues to this day.
The technology first developed by the Fortune Coin Company slowly began to take over the industry, paving the way for advancements such as coinless machines as well as ‘second screen’ bonus games. This latter feature first appeared in 1994 with Australian slot machine, ‘Three Bags Full’ and then Reel ‘Em In from WMS Industries in 1996.
The advent of the internet in the late 1990s opened up all manner of opportunities for manufacturers. In fact it revolutionised gambling, just as the Liberty Bell had done more than one hundred years earlier. Although the technology was initially lacking, gradual improvements in processing power and browser functionality helped to create a platform upon which manufacturers could offer an immersive gambling experience. The big industry players soon cottoned on to the enormous potential offered by internet gambling, particularly online slots. By the early to mid-2000s, most if not all major slot machine companies offered virtual versions of their land-based machines.
Today, video and computer-powered machines are pre-eminent. Such is their dominance that they account for between 70-80% of all revenue generated by bricks and mortar casinos. For online casinos it’s even higher with total revenue approaching 80%.
Although the era of mechanical slot machines is well and truly over, traditional ‘one-arm-bandits’ are still produced, albeit in much smaller numbers. In Las Vegas particularly, casino floors are still populated by machines with fully-operational side levers in addition to electrical buttons. So it seems that even to this day, the affection for classic slots remains strong despite the seismic effects of computer technology and the internet. Charles Fey would have been proud.