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The History of Slot Machines

31 Aug 2022

To say that slot machines these days are big business in the gambling industry is putting it mildly. 

You’re likely to find them the world over on casino floors, in gambling shops, in bars and pubs and of course, present in any online casino worth its salt. 

So let’s look back at the history of slot machines, where the first slot machine came from, the importance of the Liberty Bell machine and how they eventually became a staple of land-based casinos and the rise of the online slots found right here at Pure Win!

Slot Machine Origins

To look at a modern slot machine, with all its bonus features, special sound effects and colourful animations, it’s hard to believe the full story that went on before it got to this stage.

From its early incarnation as a poker machine with prizes paid out in beer and cigars to the introduction of slot machines with their first paytables, to their evolution to fruit machines and later to online slot games, the history of slot machines has been one hell of a journey. 

Sittman and Pit do Poker 

In 1891 a New-York based company called Sittman and Pit developed what are considered to be the earliest slot machines on record. 

But they were poker machines rather than slot machine games as we now know them. 

Poker, and in this case Stud Poker, was popular at the time so most players would know how the game worked and the hierarchy of the different hands.

The poker machine worked in the following way:

  1. Players would insert a nickel to play, with the poker machine almost inevitably situated in a bar.

  2. The game had 5 drums which after the player pushed the lever, would display a card on each drum (what would today be known as a ‘reel’) using a set of 50 playing cards.

  3. So after each go, a hand made up of five cards would be displayed. 

The term slot machine came from the fact that players would insert coins into a slot on the side or at the bottom of the poker gambling machine, much like you’d feed coins into vending machines. 

Why 50 Cards Rather Than the Usual 52? 

That’s because the slot machine manufacturers were keen to increase their house edge and by removing the ten of spades and Jack of Hearts, they were seriously limiting the player’s ability to land some of the most valuable hands. 

None more so than the Royal Flush. The mere removal of these two cards reduced the odds of a Royal Flush by half because it couldn’t be in either hearts or spades.

Not that getting one of those was ever going to break the bank anyway. 

These first slot machines didn’t have a direct payout mechanism so couldn’t pay out cash or even tokens on any wins. Instead, players were paid out at the bar in beer, whisky or expensive cigars on some of the more valuable hands. 

The Liberty Bell 

Shortly after the poker machine had hit bars in the US, the San Francisco-based mechanic Charles August Fey set out to build an improved version of it, which went on to be known as the Liberty Bell.

Though no one knows the exact date, the first version of this slot machine is thought to have been built around 1893-1895.

One of the shortcomings of the poker machines was that there were so many different possible winning hands that the machine couldn’t compute them all by recognising all the different types of win; so there was no automatic payout.

Instead, winners had to actually show bar staff that they’d won on the machine itself. 

Fey also suspected that a time would come (after the novelty had worn off) when players would want cash prizes from wins, rather than just drinks, or other non-monetary prizes. 

The solution was to make it a three-reel slot machine rather than a five-drum one. 

And after initially experimenting in San Francisco bars with playing cards like the original poker gambling machines, he used just five symbols which would be displayed when the three spinning reels stopped spinning. 

The symbols were:

  • Hearts

  • Diamonds

  • Spades

  • Horseshoes

  • Liberty Bell

The Liberty Bell was the highest-value symbol and getting three of them resulted in the highest possible payout on these early slot machines, which was now an automatic payout. 

Taking its name from the highest-value symbol, the original slot became known as the Liberty Bell.

Sadly for Fey, despite his huge contribution to the history of slot machines, he made a crucial mistake: he didn’t patent the Liberty Bell.

That meant other slot machine manufacturers could essentially copy his design of his Liberty Bell, without any copyright consequences. 

US Gambling Ban Causes a Re-Think 

The next chapter in the history of slot machines coincides with the ban on gambling in the US at the start of the 20th century. 

That’s a story for another day but in essence, the US government didn’t like the idea of organised crime profiting from vices like prostitution or gambling and without any set plan as to how to regulate them, just ended up making them illegal. 

Whereas card games or roulette wheels could “go underground”, it wasn’t so simple with the slot machine, which had traditionally been displayed and played in bars and more recently in bowling alleys, cigar stores and barber shops open to the general public. 

The solution was to go old-school and pay prizes out in anything but cash just like with those early poker machines, thus making the slot machines into non-gambling machines. 

A contradiction in itself which eventually ended up in court, as we discuss below. 

The Rise of the Fruit Machines 

Another key moment in the history of slot machines came with the manufacturing of the Operator’s Bell.

The machine had the option of being bought with a gum-vending attachment.

The fact that the chewing gum for sale came in fruit flavours like lemon, cherry, orange and plum inspired its makers to have those fruits appear as fruit symbols on the slot machine, which became known, you guessed it, as a fruit machine. 

The fruit symbols were joined on the reels by the classic bell, while a new symbol was introduced: the bar symbol.

This symbol was based on an early logo of the chewing gum company - the Bell-Fruit Gum Company. 

The bar symbol is still present on many modern machines, generally as one of the most valuable symbols. 

To sidestep the gambling ban, prizes were paid out in chewing gum or other food prizes, something that was also a major part of the court cases discussed below. 

Money Honey is a Game-Changer 

Remarkably, most of the elements of the early machines remained pretty much the same for the next half-century.

But in 1963, the Money Honey made by Bally added two important elements as it became the first fully electromechanical slot machine. 

The first was the introduction of a bottomless hopper, resulting in quick and easy payouts. 

The second stemmed from this and was the fact the slot machine could pay out up to 500 coins directly to the winners without the need for an attendant. 

This sped up the process of players getting their winnings and reduced the need for staff to be at hand. 

The Slots World Meets the Video World 

Up until 1976, slot machines didn’t have a TV-like screen displaying the symbols.

1976 was the year the first video slot was released, by a Las Vegas company called Fortune Coin.

It used a modified 19-inch Sony TV for the display and it was made available to play at the Las Vegas Hilton Hotel under supervision, the first video slot machine ever. 

"Under supervision" because it still required some late tweaks and modifications to make sure it wasn’t vulnerable to cheating. 

Once that was done, it got approval from the Nevada State Gaming Commission to be made available to the general public, the first video slot machine to do so. 

Soon after it was readily available in a number of Las Vegas Casinos and the sight of people playing slots with plenty more following the action became a frequent sight on the Las Vegas strip. 

In 1978 its maker Fortune Coin was acquired by IGT, which went on to become one of the biggest players in the manufacturing of slot machines. 

It’s Bonus Time

Some thirty years later, another milestone was reached in the evolution of video slots and more precisely video slot machine technology: the introduction of the very first stand-alone second screen bonus round. 

Triggering the bonus round led to a second screen emerging where you played a game completely independent of the base game and where additional (and) better prizes could be won during the bonus round. 

The fruit machine was called "Reel‘Em In" and was made by WMS Industries Inc. 

The stand-alone bonus round just further contributed to the popularity of video machines on the Las Vegas strip and in the mid-90s accounted for about 70% of a Las Vegas casino’s income and also 70% of the available floor space. 

Evolution of Slots over Time

By looking back at the key moments in the history of slot machines, we’ve inevitably already looked at some of the ways they changed over the decades.

That included the transition from playing card symbols on the reels to fruits and other special symbols, and a shift from food and drink-related prizes to cash, the first electronic gaming machines that featured bottomless hoppers and direct payout to customers and were followed by the first video slots that used a TV screen. 

Later we had the first-ever stand-alone bonus game on a separate screen. 

But here are some of the other ways that the old-school slot machines evolved into the modern slot machines we know today. 

Leaving out the Lever 

The very first slot machine and all those that followed for the next five decades or so all required the user to pull a mechanical lever to make the reels spin. 

It was this lever that gave the slot machine the nickname "one-armed bandit" though there was also a running joke among players that it was called a bandit because on a bad day, it robbed you like one! 

The more superstitious players felt the way you pulled down the lever could affect the spinning of the reels. 

But in fact, the lever would just set the reels in motion and it would stretch a spring inside the machine that would gradually stop the reels from spinning. So how you pulled it made no difference at all. 

But shortly after the Money Honey was invented, one of the new slot machine functions was that the lever was replaced by a button and no longer did players have to go through the act of pulling the lever when playing.

Increase in Payment Methods 

The sight of land-based slot machines making hundreds of coins rain down is dramatic all right but it’s not always the most practical solution because if you want to cash them in, sooner or later you’ll have to walk around with them all. 

So at the start of the 21st century, slot games allowed you to use credit cards or "Ticket-in, Ticket-Out machines" to get your money in and out of the slot machine. 

With the latter, when you’re ready to collect your winnings, you press a button that releases a paper ticket with a barcode on it. The barcode will recognise the amount you won when you hand it to the cashier, who will then pay you out in cash. 

Progress made with Progressive Jackpots

Jackpots had been around for a while in slot machines but before 1986 they were always a fixed amount, the prize depending on the machine in question.

But 1986 was the year that IGT introduced the first ever progressive slot machine

A progressive slot machine is part of a network of slot machines and adds a small percentage (eg. 0.5% or 1%) of each stake wagered on a spin to the overall Jackpot. 

The longer the machine and all the other machines in the network go without paying out the Jackpot, the bigger the Jackpot amount waiting to be won, hence ‘progressive’. 

IGT’s first progressive slot machine was Megabucks. IGT set the ball rolling by adding 1 million dollars of their own money to the progressive jackpot and by the time it was eventually won in Reno in 1987, the prize was at $4,988,842.17 (₹39.6 Crore).

Many of the biggest-ever wins secured in gambling have come from progressive jackpot wins on slots. 

The Emergence of Online Slots 

We discuss the transition to online below but the key point here is that when online slots started emerging, they resembled video games more than they did the slots at land-based casinos. 

And with vast improvements in computer programming, the sky was the limit in terms of what the slots could do. 

And so they started being made in their hundreds with endless themes, cool sound effects, lively visual effects and animations and increasingly complex bonus rounds involving free spins, pick’em rounds and other exciting features. 

Many were based on hit TV shows, movies or celebrities as a further way of appealing to the masses. 

This saw the emergence of specialised slot manufacturers like NetEnt, Quickspin, Microgaming, Play N’GO, Elk Studios and others, who released dozens of new slots a year with big glitzy launches and online casinos often offering bonuses to try them out.

And the concept of the progressive Jackpot was alive and well in online slots. 

Anyone playing say Mega Moolah online for real money anywhere in the world would contribute to its progressive jackpot with each spin, so the jackpot itself could reach huge amounts pretty quickly.

Video Slot Machines in Pop Culture

The playing of a slot machine may lack the somewhat dramatic element of a hand of blackjack or the spin of a roulette wheel but here are a couple of times they made their way into pop culture. 

Iowa State Goes to Court 

Not once, but twice. 

In State v Ellis (1925) and State v Striggles (1926), the state of Iowa was trying to put a stop to vending machines such as gum or mints giving out non-monetary prizes as a way of sidestepping the ongoing ban on gambling. 

In both cases, a mint vending machine was deemed to be a gambling device in addition to just a vending machine because it could randomly award the buyer tokens that could be exchanged for more candy. 

The court’s ruling was that "the machine appealed to the player’s propensity to gamble and that is a vice". 

So in this case it wasn’t the slot machines (or more precisely their owners) who were on trial but rather vending machines that were somewhat acting as slot machines. 

“What Happens in Vegas”

The sight of a lucky Las Vegas visitor pocketing a big Jackpot on a slot machine has been done plenty of times in movies over the years. But never is it more central to the plot than in this one. 

Cameron Diaz and Ashton Kutcher meet in Vegas, get drunk, party and end up getting married. Realising their mistake the next day, they decide to annul the marriage. 

But not before Kutcher puts a quarter borrowed from Diaz into a slot machine and wins a 3 million dollar jackpot. Diaz wants half the winnings because they’re married but Kutcher isn’t having it. 

Ultimately, a Judge decides they need to give the marriage a go for six months. If after then they still want to divorce, they can and will then split the money halfways. 

Slot Machines Rise in Popularity

From its humble beginnings in San Francisco bars, the slot machine has become one of the most popular forms of gambling the world over. 

In Vegas there are more slot machines than any other form of gambling and more players in Vegas play slots than anything else. They also account for a big chunk of revenue at online casinos.

Their popularity can be attributed to numerous factors.

There’s more variety of them and they can be played for smaller stakes than most table games though thanks to progressive jackpots, wins on them dwarf what you can win on other games. 

And though some of the modern machines give players the options to choose from different free spin rounds or decide whether to gamble or collect a win, most slots don’t involve any strategy whatsoever beyond just deciding on the stake. 

The Transition to Online Casinos

The mid-90s saw casinos go online as they quickly became one of the most popular uses of the internet. 

But slots quickly became more popular online than the more traditional casino games like blackjack and roulette. 

That may have been because there’s more of a social/communal element to playing those games than slots or it may have been because the early versions of table games weren’t very easy on the eye and therefore not as much fun as the real thing.

It was a very different story with online slots. 

Not only were they often better and more exciting than land-based slots but any given casino could stock hundreds of them all at once. 

Whereas land-based casinos could only stock a limited amount due to space restrictions, there was no limit on how many slots an online casino could have.

Smaller casinos generally work in partnership with one or two slot manufacturers and only stock their games. But the biggest casinos often work in partnership with over a dozen at the same time, meaning the biggest online casinos like the one at Pure Win can have over 1,000 different slots to choose from, covering all manner of themes, bonus rounds and budgets. 

Slot Machines in India

Land casinos in India offer slot machines but you will only be able to go to one in the following places: Goa, Sikkim and Daman. 

Goa is the one with the most casinos, some of these being floating casinos on the Mandovi River.

All casinos in India only allow players over the age of 21 to go in and play and some casinos may have dress codes you need to abide by. 

But a good alternative is to go online and play at Pure Win.

As we mention in the section above, whereas land casinos can stock a fair few slots, there’s absolutely no limit to how many our online casino can offer.

So you’ll be spoilt for choice when it comes to deciding what to play, including of course those progressive jackpot slots. 

Other benefits of playing our online slots include bonuses for players, 24/7 action and being able to play via your mobile, meaning you can play slots or any other casino game from anywhere. 

Conclusion

So that’s the history of slots for you!  It’s hard to believe they’ve been around for almost 130 years and it’s interesting to note that the first one was of course a poker machine rather than the ones we know and love featuring symbols that spin rather than hands of poker.

All that’s left to do now is go and play online slots for yourself. Best of luck!


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