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The Fascinating History of Slot Machines

Slots are some of the many exciting casino games that you can enjoy at brick-and-mortar and online casinos, but what’s the story behind these entertaining games of chance? Join us as we take a look at the fascinating history of slot machines, and their modern equivalents, online slots.


The first ‘slot’ machine – 1891

The machine that gave birth to slots wasn’t even called a slot machine. The device is referred to by some as a “card machine” (likely due to the fact that it used playing cards), and by others as a “poker machine” (due to winnings being based upon poker hands). It was invented in the US by the company Sittman and Pitt in 1891.

This machine contained five drums and 50 cards but didn’t pay out any prizes owing to its complicated nature. If you were lucky enough to get a winning combination on one of these machines, you needed to claim the prize from the owner of the establishment where you were playing it!


The first machine with automatic payouts – 1887 to 1895

The machine that would inform the design of slot machines for decades was the Liberty Bell (the famous symbol of American independence). This device was designed by Charles Fey, a US mechanic, somewhere between 1887 and 1895, and allowed for automatic cash payouts.

It followed a much simpler design than a “poker machine”, with only three drums and five symbols. These symbols were hearts, diamonds, spades, horseshoes, and of course, the iconic Liberty Bell. This more streamlined game not only allowed for automatic payouts, it was also easier to understand, which naturally made it more popular.

This device was so popular that many other companies would go on to make their own versions that were virtually identical to the Liberty Bell. This was an unfortunate situation for Fey, who had failed to patent his machine, apparently due to the gambling laws that existed at the time.


Slot machines drop cash payouts in favour of other prizes – 1907

After slot machines were officially banned in 1902, manufacturers looked for a way to continue producing the machines without breaking the gambling laws that clamped down on them. They adapted by changing the symbols on the machines to fruit symbols, such as the iconic cherries, as well as other symbols such as apples, oranges, and melons. Players also no longer won cash but received sweets and other treats as prizes instead.

The two companies that thrived during this period were Industry Novelty Co and the Mills Novelty Company of Chicago, which was run by Herbert Mills. Mills played a large role in creating the designs of certain symbols whose use in slot machines would continue for decades.

Despite the ban on slot machines, they would eventually find their way back into the illicit gambling industry during the 1920s and early 1930s. However, things changed for their future when the US state of Nevada decided to legalize gambling in 1931. With this legal barrier out of the way, Nevada helped the slot machine industry grow, and also helped this exciting game reach a far greater audience.


Electronic slot machines take over – 1964

While production of mechanical slots continued throughout the 20th century, it wasn’t until the early 1960s that there was a major leap forward in slot technology. In 1964, a company called Bally Manufacturing, which was originally founded to make pinball games, released the first-ever electromechanical slot machine called “Money Honey”. This machine didn’t appear too different at a glance, but it soon became clear that there was more to the Money Honey than just a new coat of paint.

First, the reels were driven entirely by an electrical system. The changes to the internal systems allowed Bally to introduce a number of features, such as a maximum automatic payout of 500 coins, multi-coin payments, and even aesthetic changes such as sounds and flashing lights.

The shift towards an electronic system would also establish the foundation for the removal of one of the most iconic parts of a slot machine: its lever. The mechanical arm that made the slot machine into the “one-armed bandit” would eventually disappear from all slots thanks to the switch to the electromechanical system.


Video killed the electromechanical star – 1976

The electromechanical design approach would remain the standard until the late 1970s, when companies began to experiment with computer chips and other electronic systems. It was these developments that resulted in the launch of the first video slot in 1976. This slot machine was manufactured by Fortune Coin and used a 19-inch television screen. They were first placed in the Hilton Hotel in Las Vegas and pretty soon began to pop up in casinos across the region after the machines were approved by the Nevada Gaming Commission.

Fortune Coin was later acquired by International Game Technology (which many gamers know as IGT), which would use the technology to produce the first progressive slot system. It was called Megabucks, and was released in 1986. (Progressive slot games allow a jackpot to accumulate by taking a small percentage of multiple slots’ earnings and adding them to a single jackpot prize.)


Slots go digital, online, and mobile

With computers increasing in speed and starting to go mainstream in the late 1980s and early 1990s, it was only a matter of time before they were able to recreate the slot machine experience for players at home. But another piece of technology was necessary before people could start gambling for money from home.

The internet made it possible for people to play slot games for money from the comfort of their own sofas! Once potential gamers were able to connect to this global network of computers, entrepreneurs and gaming companies saw the potential for online casinos. These virtual casinos launched online in the mid-1990s, and not long after that, developers began to adapt their slot machines for online gaming.

In the beginning, gaming software companies focused on translating their existing games to cyberspace, but it didn’t take long for them to realise there was much more creative freedom compared to the systems that they used to create physical electronic slot games. Players could enjoy all the regular and progressive jackpots, free spins, and bonuses they had always had, but now developers could offer even more bonus games or exciting twists on traditional slot gameplay. Reels could change and shift, mini-games could offer completely new gameplay experiences, and progressive jackpots meant slots didn’t have to be in the same room but could be enjoyed by players all across the world!

As time went on, computers not only got faster, they got smaller. Today you can carry a smartphone that has thousands of times more computing power than an entire desktop had back in the 1990s. The development of these powerful mobile devices such as laptops, tablets, and mobile phones, meant that slots were no longer something you had to sit at a desktop computer to play. Today you can enjoy slots from the comfort of your sofa, outdoors in the park, or even on public transport on your way to work! Things have certainly changed from the hulking mechanical behemoths (relatively speaking) that they used to be.


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