Step onto any casino floor, log on to any online gambling site or, heck, just walk into a bar or restaurant, and you’ll be met by the flashing lights and jangling sounds of a slot. Whether it’s lines and lines of bulky machines with buttons and levers or the array of online icons flashing away for your attention, the simple slot game is one of the most recognisable and most essential elements of any premises that offers games of chance. But unlike games of cards or dice, or betting on sporting events for that matter, slots have not been around for that long. Since their invention at the turn of the 20th Century, they have been unstoppable on their march to domination. So how did they do it?
In the beginning, poker was the inspiration. The game that had swept America was getting automated, but the first machine (invented in 1891 in New York) didn’t have a mechanism to pay out winnings. It wasn’t until German immigrant Charles Fey turned his mind to creating a slot machine that the spinning reels and pay-out system came to be with the famous Liberty Bell, built in San Francisco in 1899. In addition to the playing card symbols, there were also horseshoes and bells and if you lined up three bells, you got a 10-nickel jackpot. The machines were a hit and Fey began working on variations, even as competitors elsewhere in the country began to work on their own designs. As a sad footnote, the San Francisco earthquake in 1906 mean that only a handful of the original Liberty Bell slot machines are still around.
A crackdown on gambling
Slot machines had only been around for a few years before their dazzling popularity drew the attention of the government. A ban on machines that paid out money was introduced in 1902 but their makers soon found a way around the legislation. Instead of coins, people spinning the wheels could win tokens and other “trade stimulators.” Suddenly, slot machines were chewing gum dispensers, keeping all the bells and whistles but vending candy with each coin inserted. What’s particularly interesting about this point is this is when the card symbols were replaced with fruit symbols and bars, the icons that are so strongly associated with the machines to this day. A nifty way to exploit loophole became a part of history.
When Prohibition was introduced in 1920, slot machines were an integral part of speakeasies and continued to flourish. Machines paid off tokens and other prizes but some places operated as underground gambling dens and made sure that cash prizes found their way to the winners. In 1931, two years before Prohibition ended, Mills Novelty Company introduced the Silent Bell machine which, as the name suggests, didn’t make any noise. Can’t think why that was so appealing at that point in history…
1931 was also the year that Nevada legalised gambling, and the development of new and better slot machines continued apace. The first slot machine was found in the iconic Flamingo Hotel. The market came to be dominated by Bally, a company out of Chicago that was originally called Lion Manufacturing but changed their name to that of their popular pinball game The Ballyhoo. Their first slot machine took both nickels and quarters and their “Hi Boy” machine was released in 1940.
However, they would take their real giant leap in 1963 when they unveiled “Money Honey”, the first electro mechanical slot machine. What made it so special? Well, it had a bottomless hopper and the automatic pay-out system removed the need for an attendant to give the gambler their winnings. This machine could dispense up to 500 coins in one pay-out, and you could place multi-coin bets. The Money Honey was a hit, and the race to build better, more popular electronic slot machines was on with the chance to place bigger and bigger bets and win bigger and bigger returns. The era of the one-armed bandit was over, although you will of course see that lever on many machines.
Video slots arrive
Given how profitable and competitive the market for slot machines was, it’s hardly surprising that there was a constant push to find the next big thing. Computer chips meant that video slots were born, with the first being developed in 1976 by Las Vegas-based company Fortune Electronics. Over the years, the old spinning wheels were replaced by video, allowing for greater diversity and more exciting images in the game offered. Although the old-fashioned machines could still be found, video quickly took over. Slot machines had also become incredibly popular in Europe following the Second World War, although they weren’t made legal in France until 1988! There are at least an estimated 200,000 slot machines in Nevada alone.
The move to online
Slots have been a key part of gambling since their inception so when the first online casinos began to spring up, slots were always going to be a necessary part of the business. In a similar fashion to how slot machine manufacturers found a way around government interference back at the start of the century, online casinos had to figure out the rules and regulations of establishing homes for gambling online in the early 90s.
The first was registered in Antigua and Barbuda thanks to their Free Trade and Processing Act, and Internet Gaming Inc. became the first of many when it launched in 1995. The rush was on to take gambling online, but a major setback occurred in the US in 2006. The government had long been uneasy about online gambling and finally took action by introducing the Unlawful Gambling Enforcement Act. In the rest of the world, however, online casinos flourished and each offers a truly staggering array of online slots for you to take your chances on, from old-fashioned fruit machines to movie and celebrity tie-ins. You can check out this article of the best slot sites to help you decide where you should head to first. It’s an invaluable guide to exploring the next generation of slot games.
That’s the evolution of how slots became a key fixture of casinos. As you can see, it’s an intruging tale that’s worth sharing when you’re next at the slot machine!