Slot Machines – a Historical Account

videoslots-logoHave you ever seen a slot machine? Of course you have… you wouldn’t be here if you haven’t, but do you know what’s inside those colorful machines, what makes them tick as they say? Well, if you do, you can skip forward, but if you wish to learn about the history and the insides of those metal boxes filled with money, read on.

Charles August Fey

The man credited for the construction of the first slot machine was named Charles August Fey, a German national who moved to San Francisco in the late nineteenth century.

Mr. Fey was amazed and inspired by the devices created by his fellow inventor Gustav Schultze, which were widely spread in hair saloons and paid off only in cigars and free drinks.

Mr. Fey, who was working as a mechanic at the time, completed the construction of the first coin-accepting device in 1894 and a year later he built his second gambling machine, which quickly became very popular. Thus, Mr. Fey seized the opportunity, quit his job and started mass production.

Originally, Mr. Fey’s devices provided the opportunity to win cigars, but demand for cash payouts made him modify his creations to give money as a reward.

In 1899 he set up a device named the “Liberty Bell”, or the first model of the slot machine as we know it today. The machine was equipped with three reels with six different symbols : diamond, heart, spade, horseshoe, star and a cracked Liberty Bell. The reels were set in motion when the handle on the side was pushed down and the winnings depended on the symbols the player got, as the largest payout of 50 cents was given when three Liberty Bells were shown.

Another famous machine of his was the first “Draw Poker”, which included five reels each holding ten cards. The payout of the device was based on the rank of the player’s hand. For example, one having a royal flush would be paid the largest amount of money. However, having spots for only fifty cards, the ten of spades and the jack of hearts were often excluded and without those two, the chance of anyone getting a royal flush were minimal.

Unfortunately, in 1906 San Francisco was hit by an earthquake which destroyed all but four of the “Liberty Bell” machines. One of the survivors can be seen at the Liberty Belle saloon in Reno, Nevada, where the machine is displayed as an antique.

Herbert Stephen Mills

Although the first batch of slot machines were destroyed, the technology behind them survived and it was quickly copied by opportunistic entrepreneurs, such as Herbert Stephen Mills.

Mr. Mills established the Mills Novelty Company of Chicago and began production of the Mills Liberty Bell, High Top and Golden Falls, which became popular and spread across the country very rapidly. One could often see the machines in saloons, bowling alleys, pool clubs and other places of entertainment.

A while later, manufacturers started the production of bigger gambling machines, which had a large spinning wheel, sliced into sections with different colors. In order to win, a player had to bet on a color, pull the lever and hope for the wheel to stop at one of his winning sectors. Depending on the scale of the wheel, the sections ranged from fifty to one hundred colors.

Those type of gambling machines attracted a lot of fans and became the most popular game to play, but after a while the excitement faded away and without wasting any time Mr. Mills unveiled its newest game, called the Kalamazoo, which was one of the first floor machines. Once the device proved to be successful, it triggered a wave of copycats, which may have been a little different or even improved, but still based on the same principle. The Kalamazoo allowed its players to insert a maximum of five coins and paid up to $1 dollar, while the Duplex, which was created by Mr. Fey, enabled its players to insert as much as ten coins.

As a result of various techniques and marketing methods Mills’ business grew rapidly and in 1927 became one of the nation’s largest supplier of slot machines. An interesting feature that distinguished Mill’s products from those, offered by the competition, was that they provided extra motivation. For instance, a player could always see the money inside that he would get, if he hit the right combination. Additionally, a player could also see three rows of symbols every time the reels stopped and exactly how close he was to the much desired win.

Eventually people got bolder and demanded machines with larger denominations, which spurred an industry race. In 1928, Charles Fey introduced the Silver Dollar slot, or the first machine to accept coins of that size.

In less than thirty years the manufacturing of slot machines transformed into a very lucrative and very popular business. During that time frame, more than one million slot machines were manufactured on a global scale. A lot of new facilities were created, with each one introducing new modifications, including the swap of the steel casing for one made of aluminum, which was widely adopted.

Slot machines enjoyed an increasing demand from the “speakeasies” establishments, which reminded of present day bars, but during the Prohibition period they were considered as illegal and often frowned upon.

The Period after the Great Depression

The slot machines survived and even flourished during the Prohibition and the Depression, but their boom was not accepted by everyone and many politicians and law enforcement officers were openly expressing their criticism and even fought against the industry. However, their efforts were futile as people continued to visit their local saloons or bowling alleys and spent hours in front of the ”one-armed bandits”.

During the World War II many factories were closed and repurposed for manufacturing weapons for the military, while those facilities that were not involved in the weapon construction were hit by a shortage of aluminum. Thus, the factories were forced to go back to iron casings. Eventually, the war effort caught up to everybody and production of slot machines was completely put to a halt in 1942 until the end of the armed conflict.

Around the early 1950s a self-taught carver and a renown artist Frank Polk was also drawn to the appeal of slot machines. Mr. Polk created a series of hand-made wooden cases for machines like the Mills High-Tops, which quickly became very popular due to their life-like designs. The casings often resembled Indians, cowboys, miners and other western figures. Nowadays Polk’s work is considered as a treasure trove for collectors.

Screenshot of a very old slot machine

Bally’s Innovations

In the 1960s another innovation to the slots machine industry was introduced by Bally Manufacturing, which had been in the business of making arcade games and similar coin-powered machines for more than thirty years. The company implemented the usage of electro-mechanical circuitry in order to recognize a large number of payout possibilities. Additionally, Bally swapped the single-coin slicer and installed a hopper payout mechanism, which allows a slot machine to pay out as much as 500 coins without the help of an attendant.

The company’s string of innovations let it surpass its competitors and dominate the industry, controlling around 90% of all slot machines in Nevada during the 1970s. In 1967 Bally launched the first slot machine, named “809”, which offered a payout proportional to the deposited amount. The minimum bet for the machines was set at one coin, while the maximum – at five.

In the 1980s the company released its Series E, which marked a huge leap towards the slot machine as we know it today. Those devices were equipped with microprocessors which controlled every move that the machine does, additionally the new technology captured and stored information about different metrics, including when the last payout occurred, how much it was, how many times the machine was played etc.

Additionally, Bally implemented music chips into those microprocessors, giving the slot machine the ability to generate different sounds when coins were inserted or the reels were spun.

However, with the development and the utilization of new technologies Bally took a step back, but still remained in business, offering a variety of shiny new machines. The top dog now is IGT, International Game Technology, which manufacturers the majority of the top earners among the slot machines. Additionally, IGT introduced the first cloud technology used on slot machines in 2011.

Screenshot of a very old Bally's slot

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