Slot machines may be one of the simpler types of gambling games, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t fascinating to play or learn about. In fact, slots have a fascinating history that has helped define the world of gambling in more ways than one.
If you’re interested in a quick overview of the history of these innovative devices, read on. We’ll cover everything from the first poker-inspired spinners at the end of the 19th century to Megaways and the other online slot games popular today.
1891 – The “Poker” Slot Machine
The inception of the slot machine may surprise some because it comes from a completely different game – poker. The creators, Sittman and Pitt from Brooklyn, New York, had a pretty simple yet ingenious idea that they put into practice in 1891. They engineered a machine with five drums, each holding 10 playing cards. The players had to insert a nickel into the coin slot and then pull a lever that’d spin the five drums.
Once the drums stopped spinning, they’d display five cards that’d constitute the player’s “poker hand.” The reason the machine had 50 cards instead of 52 was that the ten of spades and the jack of hearts were removed to reduce the odds of a royal flush.
The machine didn’t have a “win condition” per se, nor did it dispense rewards. Instead, the players would either just play for fun to see what hand they’d get, or the establishment’s owner would give out rewards for especially good hands – a smoke for a pair, a free drink for a royal flush, and so on.
These first slots, as simple as they were, proved a huge success. They were earning money, bringing people back into the restaurants and bars, and keeping them entertained while they were there.
1895 – The First “Liberty Bell” Slot Machines
While Pitt and Sittman’s poker-inspired slots were revolutionary, they had a couple of imperfections: 1) they didn’t include any automatic payout methods, and 2) all the different card combinations meant the slots didn’t have a clear win condition.
As a result, Charles Fey of San Francisco, California, created a simpler machine four years later that’s much closer to what modern slots look like. It had three spinning reels instead of five drums and only five symbols (horseshoes, hearts, spades, diamonds, and a Liberty Bell) on each instead of the 10 playing cards of the “poker slot.”
This made for a much clearer payout mechanism. Getting three of the same symbols meant the player had won a prize. The highest prize was awarded to players who got three Liberty Bells – which is why these slots were dubbed “bell machines.”
Additionally, to Fey’s credit, he had started working on his bell machine in 1887, before Sittman and Pitt’s slots had come out. This makes Fey’s bell machine a wholly original creation, not a derivative of someone else’s work.
Early 1900s – Rise of the Fruit Slot Machines
As Fey’s slots started taking over the US, many other manufacturers began to copy his design. This also led to variations, such as replacing the five symbols with flags, wreaths, and other patriotic symbols.
A much more significant variation made by a machine called Operator’s Bell was the addition of a gum-vending attachment to the slot machines. This can seem insignificant at first, but it meant two things:
1) The gum-vending attachment could give out candy rewards instead of money, thus circumventing many states’ gambling laws.
2) Many slots started replacing the diamonds, horseshoes, spades, and hearts symbols with fruit symbols – hence these slots getting nicknames like “fruit machines” and “fruit slots.”
1963 – Going Electric with Bally’s Money Honey
One of the biggest changes to slot machines took place in 1963 when Bally Manufacturing developed Money Honey – the first electromechanical slot machine. There had been other partly electric machines before, but the Money Honey was the first fully electromechanical slot.
It also had a bottomless hopper and an automatic payout, which meant it could pay out up to 500 coins without the need for human intervention. Needless to say, this made Money Honey incredibly popular and revolutionized slot machines going forward.
1976 – First Video Slots
A little over a decade after Money Honey, Fortune Coin Co. developed the first video slot machine. Instead of physical spinning reels, this slot used logic boards and a 19-inch Sony Trinitron color receiver. The first such machines were tried out at the Las Vegas Hilton Hotel and (after a few modifications to deter cheaters) were quickly approved by the Nevada State Gaming Commission. From there, video slots didn’t need much time to overtake their mechanical predecessors and can now be found in almost every casino worldwide.
1996 – Online Casinos and Online Slot Machines
The next major evolution of slot machines happened in a direction no one could have predicted just a few years prior – online slot machines. Microgaming pioneered this new way to play slots in 1996 with their game “Cash Splash.” Of course, Microgaming did much more than just that, as they also created the first online casino.
Online casinos have only kept growing in popularity since then, and the annual online gambling market is now getting close to $100 billion, in large part thanks to online slots.
The games themselves keep changing too, as newer mechanics and variations are constantly developed. Big Time Gaming’s Megaways slots are a great example of that, as they introduced a whole new way of online gambling in 2015. You can find online the changing paylines of Megaways slots explained, but the gist is that BTG created a new type of slot that makes every game different by changing the paylines with every spin, depending on the symbols that come up.
As you can see, slots have a pretty storied past that demonstrates how even such a straightforward game can change dramatically with time. While there is much more we could explore about them, all that history brings up an interesting question – what’s in store for slots going forward?