Who Invented Slot Machines?

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Charles August Fey Liberty Bell Slot Machine

Take a look at any online slots site, and you’ll find a stunning variety of games. From classic three-reel fruit machines to epic video slots with in-game bonus features and levels, slot machines have come a long way since their creation.

I decided to take a trip into slot machine history to find out who invented slot machines and how they developed over time. This post is a summary of what I found out. Slot machine fans, this post is for you.

The First Slot Machines

Have you ever wondered how slot machines got their name? It’s actually a shorthand way to say nickel-in-the-slot machine, a testament to the old days when you slipped a nickel into the slot of a simple fruit machine.

By this definition, slots gaming pioneers invented the first machines in the 1880s. Bars and saloons in the Old West offered them. It involved punters dropping a coin in the slot to witness two toy horses racing or something similar. Punters wouldn’t win anything for these games, but they would often bet with each other.

There were a few different iterations of slot machines, such as the machines developed by New York-based Sittman and Pitt. This game cost a nickel to play and had five drums which would show up. They awarded payouts for making poker hands with these cards.

In 1894, on the other side of the United States, a San Francisco-based inventor named Charles August Fey invented the first version of what we’d recognize as a classic slot machine.

Shortly after this, he built the 4-11-44, which was so successful that he quit his job to build them full time.

By 1898, Fey had created the first three-reel slot machine. These had automatic payouts built-in, with the coins falling out of the machine and into the tray below. He then built the Liberty Bell slot in 1899, which had bells, horseshoes, and other symbols of luck on the reels.

Slot Machines History and Evolution

Based on the history of early slot machines outlined above, we can say that Charles August Fey invented the first slot machine proper. However, I wanted to go deeper and learn more about how slot machines evolved and became what they are today. The following is a brief history of slot machines.

  • By 1909, Fey’s slot machines, and those created by his competitors has become such a success that they were banned. Moral forces such as the church petitioned for them to be banned, and in this year, the government of San Francisco capitulated to their demands. This caused slots production to shift to Chicago.
  • During the Great Depression in the 1930s, the popularity of slot machines continued to grow. They spread far and wide across the United States.
  • By 1951, slot machines were almost completely banned all across the United States. The exception was Nevada, with the boom-town of Las Vegas continuing to service gamblers from across the world. However, it was a well-known secret that slots still existed in private clubs all over the country.
  • In the midst of financial need after World War II, governments across the world embraced slot machines. Why the sudden change in tune? You guessed it, tax revenue. With a newfound optimism and liberal attitude, and a need for taxes to rebuild from the rubble, the slots industry boomed like never before.
  • Like most booms, this one produced a hyper-competitive environment in which developers created all sorts of new slot machines. Technology had advanced since the ban, and developers created new electronic slot machines with more complicated payout schemes.
  • Video slot machines started to pop up in 1975, but surprisingly, they didn’t succeed at first. It turns out that land-based slots players preferred to pull the handle and watch the reels spin in front of them.
  • The first progressive jackpot slots came online in the mid-eighties. This was a watershed moment in the history of slot machines. Since then, jackpots have grown exponentially. In Las Vegas today, slots like Megabucks can pay tens of millions.
  • In 1988, the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act became law. This recognized tribal sovereignty and made it more difficult for states to enforce gambling bans on tribal lands. This led to the rapid expansion of the Native American gambling industry.
  • In the early days of the 21st century, casinos came under pressure from the rapid rise of online casinos. This, some would say uncoincidentally, led to the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act of 2006.
  • Today, online slots are still illegal in the USA, but land-based machines are alive and well. Despite being illegal in America, lots of players from around the world play online slots at a rapidly growing number of online casinos.

5 Interesting Slot Machine Facts

  1. Did you know that slot machines and other electronic gaming machines produce roughly 70% of profits for most casinos?
  2. The largest slot machine payout in history occurred in 2003. A software engineer from Los Angeles won $39.7 million while playing the Megabucks slot in Las Vegas. The wager cost him $100.
  3. A World War II veteran named Elmer Sherwin won two multimillion-dollar jackpots in his life. The first was a $4.6 million win in the Mirage on opening night, and the second was a $21 million win which occurred 16 years later.
  4. A Chicago-based operator named Herbert Mills introduced the first slots with fruit symbols in 1907. Those symbols can still be found in lots of slot machines today. Any cultural meme created today would do extremely well if it lasted that long.
  5. When the catastrophic San Francisco earthquake hit in 1906, most of the original Liberty Bell slot machines were destroyed. Only four survived, and today, any remaining antique slots are worth quite a bit more than a nickel!

Summary

Slot machines have come a heck of a long way since Charles Fey tinkered with the first Liberty Bell machines in his basement. He probably couldn’t have even imagined how big his invention would become. The number of slot machines in existence today is innumerable. Tens of millions of machines are available in casinos, pubs, bars, cafes, and gaming halls across the world.

What will happen to slot machines in the future? I’m not 100% sure, but my guess is we’re going to enter an era of virtual reality in gaming.

Slot machines will continue to evolve and change, and they won’t escape the VR revolution.

Will we someday see a billion-dollar progressive jackpot? Right now, it’s unthinkable, but I’ll bet you that had you told Charles Fey that someone would win $39.7 million on a Vegas slot, he would have laughed in your face.

This has been the history of slot machines to date. Where we go from here is anyone’s guess!

Oliver Hughes

Based out of London, I began freelance writing for the UK section of GamblingSites.org in October of 2019. Having worked in the gambling industry for over 10 years, I now have the pleasure of adding this site to my list of accomplishments as a casino writer. ...

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