The History of Slots
The origins of slot machines can be traced back to the late 19th century, although there's some argument about exactly who is responsible for their initial invention. Some believe a Californian named Charles Fey came up with the idea first in 1887. Others credit an American duo, Sittman and Pitt, with developing the first example in Brooklyn, New York in 1891 while claiming Fey's machines weren't conceived until 1895.
Regardless of the exact chronology, it's widely accepted that these early devices were effectively the beginning of slot machines as we know them today.
Sittman & Pitt
The machines invented by Sittman and Pitt were based on poker and contained five drums carrying a total of 50 playing cards. Players inserted a nickel (5 cents), pulled a lever, and the drums would spin around before stopping and displaying a five-card poker hand. The idea was that the better the hand, the more a player could win.
These machines became popular, and soon bars and saloons throughout New York had one. The main problem was that there was no automatic mechanism for paying out due to the many possible winning combinations. As such, different establishments had various rules for what prizes hands could win. Usually, some combination of free drinks and cigars were on offer. The fact that there were only 50 cards out of the 52 in a deck meant it was harder for a player to win.
Charles Fey & The Liberty Bell
The machine invented by Charles Fey was a little more practical. Called the Liberty Bell, it featured three spinning reels and five different symbols: a horseshoe, diamond, spade, heart, and Liberty Bell. This made for less winning combinations and meant Fey could devise an effective mechanism for paying out wins automatically. The best possible combination was three Liberty Bells, which paid out ten nickels.
The Liberty Bell proved to be an even bigger success than the machines produced by Sittman and Pitt, and it was basically the start of a boom in the mechanical gaming device industry. Other companies got in on the action and began to produce their own versions. Within a few years, these could be found in all kinds of establishments throughout the US. In addition to bars and saloons, they were also installed in venues such as bowling alleys and barber shops.
Mechanics of Early Slot Machines
Compared to those used today, the early slot machines were fairly basic. At the time, however, they were really quite impressive even if relatively simple. Each machine contained three metal hoops which were the reels. The various symbols appeared on each of these reels, which required a pull on a lever to start them spinning.
If a winning combination appeared when the reels stopped spinning, then the appropriate number of coins was dispensed from the machine according to the payout schedule. The single lever used to start each game is why slot machines became known as one-armed bandits.
Introduction of Fruit Symbols
In 1907, one manufacturer from Chicago, Herbert Mills, produced a machine called the Operator Bell. This was the first slot game to use fruit symbols, a tradition that has remained in use since. Indeed, slot machines in the United Kingdom are still widely referred to as fruit machines.
Electronics & Gambling
As the 20th century progressed and technology evolved, electronics began to be employed in a variety of gambling machines, including slots. By 1963, the first completely electronic slot machine had been developed when Bally Manufacturing released its Money Honey slot game. Subsequently, many more electronic games were introduced.
The side lever used to spin the reels still appeared on many machines, essentially for the sake of tradition. Games could be started by pressing a button and other features such as nudges and holds were added. In the 1970s, things progressed to another level as video slot machines began to be manufactured.
By the 1990s, video slot machines had become even more advanced. The first examples of "second screen" games proved to be a great success. When certain combinations of symbols appeared on the reels, the display would change to a separate bonus game where additional payouts could be won. These greatly improved the entertainment factor of games, and the popularity of slots continued to grow.
Online Slot Machines
Towards the end of the 20th century, the power of the Internet led to online casinos. Many of them offered a selection of different slot games; in the years since then, online slots have progressed dramatically. Pretty much every online casino has a wide range of slot games, with varying rules, payouts, and themes.
There are now literally hundreds, if not thousands, of online slots you can play from the comfort of your own home. Many of these have huge jackpots, often running into the millions of dollars, and often based on things like TV shows, movies, and comic book characters. Slots are incredibly popular with online casino players and can be a lot of fun to play.
If you are interested in playing slots online, we suggest taking a look at our slots page, where we list the best places to play. Alternatively, check out our top ranked casino sites for more recommendations.
Author: Brad Johnson
Updated: March 2015
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