The History of Slot Machines

GAMBLING MEN

1891 and against the backdrop of the town of Brooklyn, in the recently-booming east coast New York City, Sittman and Pitt had just developed the gaming machine that in the years to come would be considered THE precursor to the modern slot machine. Based on poker, possibly to cash-in on the popularity of the game, the machine contained five drums carrying a total of fifty cards and like it’s namesake in the table-sitting world, it proved to be a popular hit with gambling players everywhere but especially in it’s home city of New York. At this time you would be hard-pressed to find a bar in the city that didn’t have at least one of these machines standing at the side of the bar waiting for potential players to insert a nickel and press the lever in the hope of a good poker hand. These machines had a drawback. There was no direct payout mechanism, so in order to cure this problem, establishments would for example, offer a patron a free beer should he receive a pair of Kings, maybe a cigar if he hit a lower hand. It was not ‘made’ easy for a customer to win. Once obtaining a machine, many establishments would typically remove two select cards from the deck: the Ten of Spades and the Jack of Hearts. This, naturally, cut the odds of winning drastically and to make it even more difficult to win, the drums themselves could also be re-arranged to the taste of the proprietor.

What can not be re-arranged so simply however, is the differing accounts of a German immigrant named Charles Augustus Fey, and his invention over on the west coast. There are some who say he invented the first mechanical slot machine in 1887, four years BEFORE Sittman and Pitt’s machine hit the bars of New York. There are others who state that Fey conceived his innovation in 1895, four years AFTER Sittman and Pitt’s machine. It is the year 1895 however, that seems to prove more popular with gambling history enthusiasts. Regardless of the chronology, Fey’s invention was revolutionary.

With what later would be termed the first “one-armed bandit,” Fey had solved the problem of designing a machine capable of making an automatic pay-out for all possible winning combinations. This was achieved by replacing ten cards with five symbols ( Diamonds, Hearts, Horseshoes, Spades and a cracked Liberty Bell ), and utilizing three reels instead of five drums thereby considerably reducing the complexity of reading a win! Three bells in a row equaled the largest payoff, amounting to fifty cents or ten nickels. The machine, consequently called Liberty Bell due to it’s attractive symbol became a massive success and is generally credited with spawning the massive mechanical gaming device industry at this time.

During the next five years Charles Fey also invented the first descendent of the Liberty Bell called “4-11-44″ named so after the maximum winning combination of the machine, worth five dollars. After this success, Fey upgraded his business from small-shop trading to factory production and in successive years invented the “Card Bell” machine and then further improved it a year later in 1899. This latest innovation had an altered symbol ( Star ) and boasted a maximum prize of twenty dimes or tokens, achieved with a three bell combination!

Fey had been enjoying limited competition and favorable government legislature in his bid to dominate the gaming device market. However, various companies including Kalamazoo and Monarch had also released slot machines and one company in particular would severely test his control. Again, there are conflicting theories as to what actually happened but it was well-known in gaming device circles around the turn of the century that Charles Fey refused to sell or lease his revolutionary Liberty Bell slot machine to anyone. One theory as it that in 1905, a robbery occurred at a saloon in San Francisco, a theft in which only two items were stolen – an apron and a Liberty Bell slot machine. Less than a year later, Herbert Stephen Mills who had inherited the ‘Mills Novelty Company’ some years earlier from his father Mortimer Mills, produced a new version of the Liberty Bell called the Mills Liberty Bell. Despite the competition, the Mills Liberty Bell saw off all challengers. Mills, at this point, was employing assembly-line techniques for the construction of slot machines and despite the controversy, later became known as the “Henry Ford of slot machines.” The other theory however states that Charles Fey actually went into business with the Mills Novelty Company, and then manufactured the Mills Liberty Bell which stunted all competition.

The Mills Liberty Bell itself featured a cast iron case with a classic Liberty Bell actually cast into the front of the machine. Originally the machine had cast iron feet with toes, but this was scrapped in later versions and they were replaced with ornate scrolled feet. Playing cards ( the King, Queen and Jack ) were depicted on the machine’s reel strips, and it also featured a bell that rung when a winning combination was hit. This was later dropped for the Mills Liberty Bell, though this concept would resurface many years later.

Charles Fey had not only had to contend with these commercial losses, but he suffered most heavily when his main slot-machine producing factory was almost utterly destroyed in an earthquake. After this point, Fey faded into relative obscurity and he died some years later in 1944. Herbert Mills’ company however continued to thrive.

 

A BOOMING INDUSTRY

By 1910 slot machines could be found seemingly everywhere. The Mills Novelty Company introduced slight variations to it’s Liberty Bell design and named it the Operator Bell. The Operator Bell had a more fitting neck coin entry and also featured fruit symbols unlike previous models. The Mills Novelty Company was also now producing five different variations of it’s Liberty Bell design at it’s factories, and by the time World War One broke out, the company had expanded into Europe and it’s factories were manufacturing up to 30,000 gaming machines.

The age of the cast iron machines came to an abrupt end when Mills introduced slot machines fashioned with cheaper wooden cabinets, and by the early 1930’s the Mills Novelty Company made a number of changes to it’s production line of slot machines that signaled another revolution of the gaming industry.

The new wave of machines introduced a double jackpot that allowed players the luxury of knowing that they could win twice in quick succession. The machines were also designed to be quieter and these 1930’s machines are now referred to as the “Silent Bell(s).”

New cabinet designs were also released as part of this new wave of slot machines and included such themes as the Lion Head, the War Eagle, the Roman Head and finally in 1933, the Castle Front. The War Eagle also boasted a new coin acceptor that displayed the coins played moving successively across the top of the machine. In the case that slugs were used to operate the machine, the operator would now be able to see if such an object was being used. The new specification also added additional movement. Herbert Mills passed away in 1929 at the age of 57, leaving a vast fortune to his wife and eight children.

In 1909, the previously favorable laws were thrown out the window, and new laws were introduced declaring that slot machines could no longer dispense cash. Slot machine manufacturers and bar owners managed to cope with these new laws by giving away free packs of gum and other prizes for getting certain combinations of symbols on the machines. There is a theory that this was the idea for the fruit and bar symbols present on modern-day slot machines. The bars are said to represent the packs of gum and the fruit symbols indicate the various kinds of candy that were won. Another theory holds that an early slot machine rewarded it’s players by awarding fruit-flavored chewing gums with the pictures of the flavors depicted by the corresponding symbols on the reels. The popular ‘cherry’ and ‘melon’ symbols are said to have derived from this machine. According to this representation of events, the ‘BAR’ symbol now common in slot machines was actually derived from an early logo of the Bell-Fruit Gum Company.

In 1919, the American government declared PROHIBITION and the consumption or supplying of alcohol was made illegal. The slot machines which mainly populated bars and saloons, were moved into the speakeasies that had been set up in light of the recent changes in the law. Since the speakeasies were illegal anyway, the managers figured they may as well go back to offering cash prizes on the slot machines. Because of this, the popularity of slot machines increased even more.

Despite the governmental pressure the gaming industry continued to bloom and grow, especially in the state of Nevada where gambling was legalized in 1931. Several companies sprung up to take advantage of the situation, and they began to manufacture and sell slot machines to the fledgling casinos in Nevada. The manufacture and enjoyment of slot machines grew at an exponential rate well into the 1960’s.

 

NEW LOOKS FOR NEW ERA

The pinball machine manufacturer, Bally, in 1964 began to produce a new slot machine named Money Honey. This machine was powered by electricity, and also possessed new sound effects as well as being classed as a multi coin machine. It was also the first slot machine ever to have a hopper – the name for the holder into which the coins get paid out. More innovations flowed from the Bally business brains; they added games that had more reels, bigger hoppers and more coins until 1970 when they produced a hopper large enough to hold dollar coins which meant larger jackpots for the consumers.

In 1978, Atlantic City legalized gambling, and by this time Bally had cornered about 90% of the slot machine market. The company continued to add reels, knowing this would decrease chances of winning and so maximizing the size of a jackpot . In addition to increasing the number of symbols on each reel with 25 eventually becoming the maximum, they also raised the wagers so games could be played at $5, $25 and even $100. Bally also hired a computer programmer by the name of Inge Telnaus to increase the size of the jackpots without losing profits for the company. Using a computer program, Telnaus utilized a random number generator that cycled through the numbers on imaginary reels he had made. A revolution had been realized in slot machine gaming as Telnaus with these imaginary reels could radically change the amounts that could be won. This random number generator has ushered slot machines into a new age and opened up new markets with new opportunities to be explored much like the Californian gold fields did for the American populace over 150 years ago.