History of the Slot Machine
You may be surprised to learn that the humble slot machine is actually pretty old, and goes all the way back to the late 1800’s. In fact, the very first versions were called nickel in the slot machines, which was a way of telling potential customers how they worked without too much explanation needed. Eventually everyone shortened the name to make it easier to say, which is what happens to most great inventions. Soon ‘nickel in the slot machine’ simply became known as the ‘slot machine’.
However, the first slot machines were not like today’s machines and did not dispense coins for a winning combination. Instead, these machines would give out spot prizes, usually in the form of cigars and free drinks, which probably explains why most were found in local bars!
The first real legit slot machine was invented by a guy named Charles Fey around 1894, which was the first of its kind and looked more or less like today's machines. Fey’s next machine, the 4-11-44 machine proved to be so popular at a local bar, he was able to resign from his job and go into slot machine production full-time. In 1898, Fey introduced an improved version of his initial design called the Card Bell. This machine featured three reels with poker cards as the game symbols, which can still be seen in most slot games today. The machine was also the first to feature automatic payouts. Fey soon followed this up with a new machine called the Liberty Bell in 1899. The game was more or less the same, but also featured additional symbols in the form of a bell and horseshoe. Starting to sound familiar yet?
Of course, like all great inventions, Fey’s design was soon copied by a number of his nearest rivals, who all put out their own versions of the slot machine. Unfortunately for Fey, he neglected to patent his unique design, leaving the way open for other novelty machine companies that had sprung up in the wake of the earliest slot machines.
By the time the early 1900’s rolled around, the voices of public morality as well as forces within the clergy began to vehemently oppose the spreading popularity of slot machines in bars, pool halls, and other popular gathering places. By the time the law stepped in, there were well over three thousand slot machines scattered throughout San Francisco. In an effort to bypass the law, Fey and other producers of slot machines began to build machines that did not feature a coin slot. Instead, patrons would purchase the right to play, as well as collect prizes in a more low-key manner, usually across the bar counter.
To keep the authorities from confiscating these machines, poker symbols were replaced with various fruit symbols along with images of chewing gum packages, as these machines purported to be merely chewing gum dispensing machines after all. In 1908, certain machines really did only dispense chewing gum in various flavours as the prizes, which is where we get the famous ‘Bar’ symbol found on various classic slot machines and fruities today. This Bar symbol was in fact based on the logo of the Bell Fruit Company, who added their logo to machines in 1908. These machines, along with the Herbert Mills Operator Bell slot, could be found in bars, bowling alleys, tobacconists, and various stores and by 1909, manufacturers such as the Industry Novelty Company were producing fruit machines in large numbers.
The Mills Novelty Company are credited with the invention and introduction of the jackpot concept. The idea was simple and proved to be highly effective and popular amongst players of their machines. Getting certain symbols to line up on the reels would result in the machine emptying out all the coins in the drawer, making this the first progressive jackpot machine as well.
It is also worth noting that slot machines that slot machines remained purely mechanical throughout this period and indeed, right up until the 1960’s. Machines were controlled by a lever, which players would have to pull down to trigger the reels and set them in motion. Players would then have to pull the lever to stretch a spring, which would in turn slow the reels down until they eventually came to a stop. This manual system was popular since it gave players a feeling of control in when the reels started and stopped. The use of the lever to play the game also gave rise to the slot machines most notorious nickname, “one armed bandits”, which is often still used to describe slot machines to this day.
By the 1920’s the slot machine had spread throughout the United States and was particularly popular in various resort areas around the country. By the time of the Great Depression of the 1930’s, slot machines were still being played in great numbers, particularly in major cities. However, the fact that most slot machines were controlled by the mafia led to extensive legislation against them. This included regulations and restrictions pertaining to the sale and transportation of slot machines. In most cases, slot machines were restricted to private social clubs only, and were not permitted in public establishments and spaces. However, the state of Nevada had legalised gambling in 1931, attracting thousands of visitors who would otherwise not be able to engage in slot machine gambling in other states. This remained in effect right up until the early 1950’s.
After the end of the Second World War, slot machines began to appear in countries outside of the United States. One of the biggest attractions to introducing slot machines in various countries in Europe and Australasia, was the fact that governments could control their distribution and gain additional funds in tax revenues levied on their use.
The year 1964 saw the introduction of the world’s first electromechanical slot machine called Money Honey. The game was the brainchild of Bally, one of the leading slot machine designers and manufacturers who are still in business today. The newer, more sophisticated electromechanical design allowed machines to feature new and improved payout tables that included three and five coin multipliers. These new payout multipliers proved to be very popular as players could decide how many coins that wanted to insert before pulling the handle. The payouts would then reflect the number of coins inserted before the win, with more coins producing bigger payouts.
Bally’s Money Honey slot machine featured reels that were operated solely by electrical means although players still had to pull down the level to trigger the reels. It is interesting to note that, due to the exclusive electric operation, a button could have just as easily triggered the reels. Bally’s logic behind including the lever was so that players would not feel that too much had changed with their slot machines. Money Honey was also the first slot machine to feature a bottomless hopper, allowing automatic payouts of up to 500 coins, all without the need for an assistant. Money Honey proved to be so popular, it sparked a revolution in the slot machine industry and ushered in the age of electronic slot machines.
In 1976, the very first video slot machine was introduced to mixed reviews. However, like it or not, the video slot was a technological breakthrough and used a 19 inch or 48 centimetre Sony Trinitron TV for the display, along with a series of ‘logic boards’ which controlled all of the usual slot machine functions. The game was housed in a full-sized slot machine cabinet and went through a trial period at the Las Vegas Hilton Hotel. The new video slot, designed and developed by the Fortune Coin Company got its approval from the Nevada State Gaming Commission. The new style of video slot machine was greeted with a fair amount of scepticism and many hard core slots gamblers did not enjoy the absence of real mechanical reels, the ubiquitous lever, and the sound of coins falling into the hopper. However, despite this, the game soon became a popular fixture at many top casino venues along the Las Vegas Strip.
1980’s – 1990’s
The 1980’s saw the introduction of the first electronic systems that were able to link various slot machines together while situated in different locations. This made network progressive jackpot gaming possible for the first time. The mid-nineties were introduced to the first multiple screen video slot machines. WMS Industries introduced the first ‘second screen’ bonus game in Australia in 1994, with a video slot called Three Bags Full. Another game, Reel ‘Em In, was introduced on Las Vegas in 1996 and borrowed the same principles that had made Three Bags Full so popular in Australia. The second screen provided the backdrop for the bonus game where players could win additional money by playing a separate special game. The popularity of slot machines increased exponentially during this period, eventually accounting for around 70% of the casinos revenue.
The mid to late 1990’s saw the advent of the internet, and an entirely new market for the slot machine. The first online casinos required a range of digital casino games and new online casino software suppliers such as Microgaming, Playtech and NetEnt were kept busy designing and producing video slots for this new medium.
The first few slots online simply imitated the main features found in brick and mortar casino slot machines. This included the same number of reels (either 3 or 5), as well as the same game symbols and basic layout. However, since these machines were all purely electronic and intended for the near-limitless world of cyber space, design parameters quickly expanded.
Today’s online slots follow all sorts of interesting and crazy designs and themes, although most stick with the same 3 or 5 reel format. The number of online slots developers has also increased, with around 100 different developers joining the ranks of the original brands of Microgaming, NetEnt and Playtech. Playing slots online is hugely popular around the world, particularly since the introduction of massive progressive jackpot online slots like Mega Moolah from Microgaming. The initial fears that online casinos and slots would kill the brick and mortar casino industry, particularly in the USA, were quickly put to rest after the introduction of the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act of 2006, prohibiting U.S. banks and financial institutions from conducting any business with online gambling sites.
2000's And Beyond
Today’s online casino industry is a far cry from the first online casinos that began to appear in the 90’s and there are hundreds of online casino operators on the web today. Online slots are constantly evolving thanks to the innovations of newer software brands like Yggdrasil, Elk Studios, and others. Mobile slots online are now every bit as good as desktop slots, and feature highly sophisticated 3D animated graphics, rendered in stunning HD quality. Perhaps we will soon see the introduction of the world’s first truly interact VR-based slot game on a massive scale, taking the humble slot machine to unimaginable heights.