The Origins of Video Slot Machines

Published 10 Aug 2014, 10:40 a.m.

The Origins of Video Slot Machines


While many forms of gambling can trace their origins back to Roman times and earlier, the humble slot machine is a rather more modern creation. In fact, the initial spark seems to date from the early 1890s, when a wav of wealth was sweeping across America, and poker was soaking up much of the proceeds. A pair of aspiring businessmen, Sittman and Pitt, decided to create a machine that could 'play' poker even without there being anyone else present. Based mainly in pubs, the machine would pop up five different cards, and if your hand was good enough, you'd receive a prize - this would probably amount to a free drink or pack of cigarettes dispensed by the bartender.

A car mechanic, Charles Fey, was intrigued by the machine, but thought it was too complex. He created his own version that would do away with the 50 different cards of Sittman and Pitt's device, and would replace them with just 15 symbols. Fey thought standard playing cards a little dull, so he replaced them with bright representations of diamonds, hearts and spades. He also added a golden bell, leading East Coast Americans to christen these machines the 'Liberty Bell'. Add the long lever required to start the 'spins', and Fey's original machine is remarkably similar to today's versions.


The Slot Comes of Age

Initially, Fey did very well from his new machine. He insisted on the devices being rented out, rather than trying to strike a licensing deal. He also became obsessed with implementing a feature that could automatically hand out prizes. His lack of focus on business allowed the Mills Novelty Company to bring out their own version, the Operator Bell, in around 1910. This kept many of the features of the Liberty Bell, but replaced the card suits with the now-iconic fruit symbols. The Operator Bell seems to have cracked Fey's monopoly, and he disappeared into obscurity at this point. He does, though, live on today as the creator of the slot machine.


Herbert Mills, owner of the Mills Novelty Company, now set out to mass-produce the Operator Bell, producing cheap wooden versions that could be distributed to pubs all across America. 1909 legislation effectively made it illegal to issue cash prizes from these machines, but they were still eagerly taken up by the illicit drinking establishments that sprang up as the result of prohibition. These places needed easy entertainment for their customers, and, being illegal already, cared little about legal restrictions. By the time prohibition ended in the early 30s, the slot machine had been an indispensable part of American watering holes. The laws on financial prizes were also relaxed, and a huge range of designs - with such themes as lions, romans, eagles, and castles - were rolled out. The sheer variety of the slots market remains today.


The Electronic Age

With the 60s, and the increasing use of electronic devices, it was time to bring the slot machine into the modern age. Bally Technology's 1963 Money Honey came with multi-coin bets and big payouts, as well as lights that flashed, and interesting sound effects. Huge numbers of competing electronic slots would come out, and gradually these models would try and phase out the old mechanical components. Walt Fraley's 1975 Fortune Coin was the first full video slot, and had no rotating drums or moving parts. Instead, a computer chip would generate the 'spins', and would then use a video screen to display a representation of a traditional slot machine. Sections of the public didn't fancy trusting a computer chip - an attitude that's often repeated in today's views of online casinos - but establishments loved them. They went wrong a lot less often, and the microprocessors meant that more sophisticated forms of payment (such as credit cards) could be implemented. The new video slots were almost impossible to cheat - players had already developed various devices that could be used to cheat slot machines.


New Companies. New Achievements.

However, the most crucial improvement of all was that virtually any new design could now be programmed and installed almost immediately. There were essentially no limits to what slots manufacturers could do. Walt Fraley sold his machine to IGT, and this company would drive the electronic slot to incredible heights of sophistication. Slots would quickly develop more reels, and a wealth of new options and symbol types (scatters, wilds etc.) would be implemented.


The real driving force, though, would be progressive jackpots. Multiple machines would be 'linked' together, and the jackpot would rise and rise as players tried and failed to hit the top prize. In 1986, IGT created the first 'wide area' progressive slot, Megabucks. This machine offered incredible payouts (culminating in one incredible win of $39.7 million), and customers flocked to try it out.


In 1995, Microgaming produced casino software that could work over the internet. By 1997, its Fantastic Sevens game became something of a hit. It only had three reels and was a pale imitation of the best land-based slots of the time. Nonetheless, the internet age had been born. In little time at all, online slots would come to surpass their physical counterparts in so many ways. But while today's online slot has a level of sophistication far ahead of the original Liberty Bell, it's remarkable just how much of Fey's original idea remains intact.