Slot Machine Background – Slot machines are considered to be among the most profitable games on the casino floor for players and houses. It was only on Friday, August 27 that we wrote about casinos in Nevada collecting a total of $1.36 billion from customers in July, the highest monthly revenue from gaming for the state since gambling was legalized in 1931. The main reason behind this record haul was slot machine. The slots generated more than $873.6 million this July, a 60% increase from the same month last year.
There is no doubt that slots have been expanding over the years, but the origins of this gambling innovation can be traced to places outside of the casino and gaming world. Slot machines as we know them today go back to the late 19th century, to a time when the earliest examples of such machines were, in fact, nothing more than a novelty. In this first two-part history of the slot machine, we take you through its earliest memories, starting with a quick tour of ancient times and ending with the 1950s.
Slot Machine Background
The invention of the slot machine is closely linked to another mechanical invention: the vending machine. And the first vending machine was invented in ancient times – but the reasons for its invention could not be much different than in modern times, perhaps naturally. The world’s first vending machine is thought to have been invented in the 1st century A.D. in Roman Egypt.
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It was created by a Roman mathematician and a heroic engineer from Alexandria. The purpose was to give only a certain amount of holy water, so that the people of the city would not take too much from the temple. The hero’s device actually allowed people to drop a coin into the slot, which, in turn, pushed down the bar to only release a certain amount of holy water so that everyone would get their fair share. From a basic point of view, the old hero vending machine is similar to today’s vending machines, too.
From there, vending machines in the 17th century went to pubs in England. In early 1600s England, a small version of the vending machine was created to distribute the sale of tobacco and snuff. Although the mechanism of the device itself did not prevent patrons from helping themselves to more than they paid for, the boxes were usually placed in a convenient spot in the bar for the innkeeper to keep a close eye on.
It was this coin-operated mechanism that evolved further in the 20th century into vending machines, and from there into coin-operated gambling devices. These early examples involved, for example, a machine with two toy horses that would run after a coin was inserted into the machine. It ended up being a novelty, though, rather than a live betting device since customers couldn’t place bets or gamble on the device itself. Instead, these machines would be placed at the bar in a salon or similar facility, attracting gambling among customers.
The price between guards in this era will also not involve money. When it came to many such machines in the 20th century, the owner would pay the winning customers in drinks, cigarettes, or business checks that could be exchanged for refreshments. By the late 1800s, however, machines that paid customers with coins began to exist. In the first such machines that were created, the coins that were inserted basically dropped on the internal scale, where they could cause tipping and spill other coins. Later devices had a circular display with a rotating indicator that stopped or pointed to a number, color or picture.
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We should interrupt our story about the slot machine here to say that it was at this time that the coin-operated mechanism was used to create another iconic machine: the jukebox.
The forerunner of the modern slot machine was created by the firm of Sittman and Pitt in Brooklyn, New York, according to a San Francisco News report. The machine was pretty ridiculous, though, and it was basically poker. It used five drums with a total of 50 card faces. Players will have to spin the game’s five reels to create a winning combination of poker hands. The game proved popular but was difficult for operators due to the large number of possible wins, making automatic payouts difficult to implement.
That’s when Charles Fey came into the picture. In the modern sense, the first slot machines were invented by this Bavarian-born American inventor. There is some doubt about when Fey built his first machine, though. Some accounts say it was created in 1894, while others say it was between 1887-1895. Either way, the credit for bringing slot machines into the modern age goes to Fey. But he had no long-term interest in creating such a device.
Fey had 15 brothers and, at the age of 14, began to support his family, but also feared being drafted into the German army. That, along with the growing tension between her and her father, led Fey to go to France to work as a pottery maker. At the same time, his uncle had gone to New Jersey in America and so, at the age of 23, Fey decided to join his uncle. Before traveling to New Jersey, however, Fey went to San Francisco and got a job at Electric Works. He and a colleague then started a company that competed with their employer. It was while working in his own business that he discovered the slot machine.
Slot Machine History
It was around 1898 that Fey developed the Card Bell, the first three-reel machine with automatic payouts instead of the common five-reel ones of the time. The Card Bell had a handle to guide the reel when pushed down and play card markers arranged to form poker hands. Fey machines usually used familiar symbols: diamonds, hearts, spades. In 1899, he created a machine that had two additional symbols: horseshoes and the Liberty Bell and, thus, the Liberty Bell slot machine was born.
On the Liberty Bell machines, if three bells were arranged in a line, it indicated a high payout. Sadly, due to the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, only four of the more than 100 Liberty Bell machines built by Fey remain. The Liberty Bell was so popular among saloonkeepers in San Francisco that it was quickly copied by Fey’s competitors, such as the Mills Novelty Company of Chicago. But by the time San Francisco banned slot machines in 1909, there were said to be over 3,000 machines in existence. In an attempt to circumvent the law, Fey and his competitors reverted to the old methods of building machines without coin slots, changing payments in other secret ways, perhaps through drinks and cigarettes.
Eventually, because of San Francisco’s ban, many slot machine factories moved, and most of them ended up in Chicago.
In the early 1900s, with a legal ban on gambling with slot machines, operators devised another way to make their machines acceptable. This was allegedly first done by the Industrial Novelty Company around 1909 using fruit symbols on the reels. Fruit symbols were showing different flavors of chewing gum. The few machines that were built then actually produced gum.
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The Industrial Novelty concept was copied by the Mills Novelty Company. The Mills Novelty Company also invented the jackpot around 1916, making certain combinations of symbols return all the coins to the machine. In the 1920s, slot machines were popular all over the country. They continued to be popular during the years of the Great Depression. But with organized crime often controlling the distribution of slot machines, their sale, transportation, and use were again restricted to private social clubs. Prohibition outside of Nevada, which relegalized gambling in 1931, was almost total by 1951. In the 1950s, electronic slot machines allowed multiple pay schemes, such as 3- and 5-coin multipliers, where the size of the payment is proportional. for the number of coins entered before the handle is withdrawn.
It was only after World War II that these machines ended up being used on an international scale, as governments were attracted by the prospect of tax revenue. In 1988, for example, slot machines were allowed in French casinos, ending a 50-year ban.
What happened once governments realized it could be used to generate more tax revenue? That’s a story for another day, in the second part of our mini-series on slot machines.
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