There’s a special feeling you get when you drop a coin into a slot, pull the lever, and set the reels in motion. Fate spins around, five reels at a time, and the possibilities seem endless. Nowadays, the lever has fallen off the One-Armed Bandit, and cyber-slots rule the day.
The history of slot machines starts way back in the final days of the Old West, with clanky, janky metal boxes. Over the next century, these crude slots evolved into slick software slots residing in cyberspace. Along the way, new and exciting features cropped up along with fantastic themes. These are the slots that changed gambling forever.
Early efforts at building a slot machine were primitive by today’s standards. The very first of these consisted of a metal box with five drums with playing cards attached. Insert a nickel into a slot (hence the name slot machine), pull the lever, and watch the spinning cards.
The idea was to get a five card draw poker hand from the five reels, and the ‘payout’ was a trade with the bartender who hosted the machine. You could win cigars, beer, or other bar treats in trade. The trade concept also allowed bars to get around strict gambling laws since no money was being paid out.
Sittman and Pitt Gambling Machine
The oldest known slot machine was built in 1891 by Sittman and Pitt of Brooklyn, New York. The simple slot machine consisted of five metal drums inside of a decorative metal box. It resembled an old cash register with playing cards instead of dollars and cents in the top window.
The drums functioned like rudimentary ‘reels’ which spun around after inserting a nickel and pulling the lever. 50 playing cards stuck onto the drum would spin around and stop, revealing a poker hand.
The winning combinations matched the probability of real poker hands, awarding payouts in trade only. The machines became extremely popular in bars, where winners received cigars or beer in trade. A royal flush might pay out 100 cigars, and a pair of kings or aces would pay 1 cigar.
There were no falling coins or a jackpot of any kind, which kept the machine compact enough to fit one or two of them at either end of a bar counter. Bar owners could remove two or more cards to increase the house edge, which may have led to the reputation of slot machines being rigged.
The Liberty Bell
Over in San Francisco, a man named Charles Fey took the slot machine one step further in 1895. The Liberty Bell slot machine had three reels instead of five, but what made it better than the Sittman and Pitt machine? Instant payouts. In cash.
The Liberty Bell was the first known example of a real money slot machine. By cutting down the number of reels to three and replacing cards with a few symbols, the payouts were more frequent. This made the machine more enticing to players.
The Liberty Bell machine’s metal body was not as ornate as its predecessor, but the finely detailed metal ‘feet’ on the bottom were reminiscent of antique claw-footed bathtubs.
The symbols were horseshoes, hearts, diamonds, spades, and a Liberty Bell. The biggest payout was three bells in a row, which paid out 50 cents. The automatic payout mechanism would rain down 10 nickels to lucky players who spun three Liberty Bells.
This was the origin of the rewarding and enticing sound of metal coins raining down into the collection hopper below. And the rest is history.
As the popularity of slot machines increased, they spread like wildfire. Many imitators of the early machines cranked out their own versions of slots, with various changes of symbols and payout amounts.
All the jingling and jangling of loose change caught the attention of anti-gambling authorities, who began to crack down on slot machines that paid out real money.
The Operator Bell, a variation on the Liberty Bell machine, solved the gambling issue by dispensing gum or candy instead of coins. The gum dispensed was often fruit flavored, and the symbols reflected this. Lemons, cherries, oranges, and plums adorned the reels.
These were called ‘fruit machines’ or ‘fruities’ in the UK, and the name stuck. Meanwhile, the slots still using poker card symbols were called ‘poker machines’ or ‘pokies’ in Australia. They still use these names today instead of slot machines.
The Video Slot Revolution
As necessity is the mother of invention, the next evolution in slot machines was long overdue. People grew tired of the nickel-and-dime slots so popular at the turn of the century.
People wanted more coins raining down in larger metal storms. This was the time when early technology began to surpass the basic metal slots of yesteryear.
The new generation of slot machines used electromechanical design, followed by computerized, video slot machines. And soon every casino and saloon where gambling was legal began offering the new slot machines.
The U.S. manufacturer Bally launched the first electromechanical slot machine in 1963: Money Honey. This new stand-up machine took slots to a whole new level. A bottomless hopper paid out up to 500 coins when a jackpot struck.
In the next decade, technology was leaning toward computerization. Those giant computing machines which took up entire walls in the 70s were slowly being compacted and reduced in bulk. Technology could not yet provide home computers but combining video technology with slot machines was an early step.
The Fortune Coin Co launched the first video slot machine in 1976. The Fortune Coin slot machine combined a 19-inch Sony Trinitron color screen with logic boards to control the slot calculations and payouts.
The next phase in slot development followed the video slot design, with rapid improvements in graphics, game design, and payout options. And the next evolution of slot machines would take place in cyberspace.
When computer technology merged with the global network potential of the internet, online slots were born. Traditional slot machines were bulky, expensive, and took up huge amounts of casino floor space.
By the mid-1990s, computer programmers were designing gambling software to imitate the casino experience without leaving home. This became especially desirable in countries and states where gambling was illegal.
Rather than traveling to Las Vegas or Atlantic City, online slots opened the door to a new generation of gamblers. All you needed was a computer and the internet, and you could access a growing number of online casinos offering online slots.
Technology gave us thousands of online slots to play in a huge variety of themes. There is almost no limit to the type of online slot you can play. Three reels, five reels, or swirling symbols instead of reels at all.
One of the greatest leaps in technology solved two problems at the same time: the introduction of RNG (random number generators). This complex algorithm perfectly mimics the random probability of an actual slot machine.
The big difference between classic slot machines and online slots is that online slots cannot be rigged by the gaming operator. The software is coded and encrypted to make such tampering impossible, assuring a fair game every time.
Spin It to Win It!
And there you have it: a brief history of the most popular form of gambling known to humankind: the slot machine. From its humble roots as a barroom distraction to its current place in cyberspace, slots are here to stay.