A Short History Of Slot Machines In The United States
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A Short History Of Slot Machines In The United States

A Short History Of Slot Machines In The United States

Slot machines have become one of the most popular gambling choices for people in the US. They contribute as much as 70 percent of the $48 billion gaming revenues earned by casinos. 

One of the reasons for this success comes from the fact that the rules for slot machines have remained mostly in place since they were first instituted. The ease of playing and instant satisfaction from winning also make this game accessible and loved by almost every generation throughout the US. 

It’s easy to think there is nothing interesting about the history of slot machines in the United States when you consider that the fundamentals have barely changed, but this isn’t the case.

The story behind the growing popularity of slot machines is extremely colorful. From flourishing with the first creations, to dealing with a backlash before effectively entering a second wave to get where we are today, here is the full story. 


What Are Slot Machines?

Although most people probably understand what slot machines are, there are a few variations, so it’s important to clarify them. 

A slot machine is a casino gambling machine that exploits simplicity and excitement to engage players to gamble their money.

The standard layout of these machines includes a display with three or more reels which rotate, either with the pull of a lever or the push of a button.

Now, although most slot machines are mostly operated with a button, many still include a lever to start the game as an homage to the traditional slot machine. 

To win on one of these slot machines, you simply need to create a pattern of symbols on the display that correlates with the associated winning outcomes. 

The machine will then give you the option to either keep or dispense your winnings, which are then yours with which to do as you choose. 


The Appeal Of Slot Machines 

Slot machines differ from many other types of gambling because it is very little you can do in the way of strategy. Even in the earlier stages, slot machines were far more reliant on emotions than a strategy to pull a winning shot. 

It’s thought that the appeal of slot machines comes from performing a relatively low effort, repetitive action in exchange for an occasional reward or prize.

These prizes, however infrequent, will motivate someone to continue performing that act as if they were going to be rewarded every time.

People play slots in the hope that their luck will repeat itself, or that amazing stories about other people will eventually be their own success stories, too. 

Slot machines are also a popular option for those who gamble casually because they do not require much skill. 

Due to their unpredictable nature, it is simply the luck of the draw whether anyone wins, thus giving everyone a fair chance regardless of how much they have played with slot machines.

In the grand scheme of gambling, slot machines are a relatively affordable form of gambling as long as people do not become addicted to the form. 

Most modern machines cost little more than a nickel, so almost anyone can afford to play at least semi-regularly without significantly affecting their bank balance. 


The Early Inventions

The slot machines we are talking about here largely refer to the modern inventions that are frequently seen in casinos and other similar establishments today. To get to that point, however, there is a rich history of discovery and invention where slot machines looked very different.

There are three main time periods during which slot machines saw the most change.



1891 was a turning point for the gambling industry because it marks the moment when Sittman and Pitt created the first slot machine in Brooklyn, New York.

At the time, it was referred to as a gambling machine due to its likeness to poker.  It quickly became popular with locals. Before long, most bars had at least one of these machines in their establishments. 

The slot machine itself was completely manual and contained five drums that held a total of 50 card faces. The ten of spades and the jack of hearts were usually removed to double the odds against winning a royal flush. 

Players inserted a nickel into the machine and pulled a lever, which would then spin the drums and the cards within them.

The players would then simply hope for a poker hand that ruled in their favor.

One of the biggest problems with this machine, however, was that there was no way of directly paying out something to the player. This meant that prizes differed depending on the establishment providing them. Some of the most popular included cigars and beer, depending on the hand-drawn. 

Another downside to these machines was that they could be easily altered by the establishments where they were installed. At the time, there were many reports of high scoring cards being removed to lower a player’s chances of winning, thereby increasing profits. 


1887 - 1895

Despite the hard work Sittman and Pitt put into creating the first slot machine, they are often left out of gambling histories.

The person most commonly credited for the invention of the slot machine is Charles Fey, who created his version somewhere between 1887 and 1895 in San Francisco. 

One of the main reasons Charles Fey gets most of the credit is because his slot machine was closer to the look of today’s modern version of the slot machines. 

The appearance of Fey’s invention stemmed from his decision against basing the game off of poker due to the vast number of possible wins. Instead, he set out to create the symbol-based game that is still commonly used today.

The symbols in his slot machine: horseshoes, stars, diamonds, spades, hearts, and a cracked liberty bell. If you recognize that last one, it’s because Charles Fey decided to name his slot machines after that symbol. 

By cutting down the mechanisms involved in the game from 50 cards to just five symbols, the game became a lot easier to play. This made it more accessible, giving us a first glimpse into the success slot machines would have in the future.

Having made it easier to read a win, it was also a lot easier to devise an effective automatic payout mechanism. 


1902 - 1908

During the period between 1902-1908, individual slot machine manufacturers exploded onto the scene, all desperate to see some of the Liberty Bell’s success for themselves. 

To avoid completely ripping off Charles Fey’s invention, many of these manufacturers created fruit machines which immediately exploded in popularity. Indeed, they still remain popular today, with parts of the world, like the UK, still referring to slot machines as fruit machines to this day. 

In this version of fruit machines, the objective was to get three of the same fruits to win a prize. These prizes were far easier to distribute because it was readily agreed that winners would receive chewing gum or sweets that corresponded with the flavor of the fruit they matched. 

Nowadays, there tends to be a different monetary value attached to different kinds of fruits, but the main principles of the game still stand.

During this period, the most successful slot machine was the “Operator Bell”, first made by Chicago manufacturer Herbert Mills in 1908. 

He introduced the BAR symbol that we commonly see in slot machine games today. This unique element helped it to achieve what would today be called ‘viral status’. The machine was so popular during this time period that it could be found in a whole host of establishments, including bowling alleys, shops, and salons. 


The Anti-Gambling Movement

Nobody would blame you for thinking slot machines had a pretty easy road to success up until this point, but it was in the early 1900s that their colorful past began.

Despite the passage of anti-gambling legislation beginning as early as the 1800s, it wasn’t until slot machines gained the popularity that the US government got serious about cracking down on them. 

This made it extremely difficult for the rising numbers of slot machine manufacturers to survive.  Many responded by bringing their services to a halt for a significant period of time. 

Interestingly, one of the first places to ban slot machines and gambling, in general, was San Francisco, the city where Charles Fey invented one of the first slot machines. Slot machines were then banned in the state of Nevada and throughout the rest of California.

By the early 1930s, the anti-gambling movement had also become a powerful political tool around the country, especially in New York. To protest their use, New Yorkers literally threw slot machines into the sea to dispose of them. 

Although the production of slot machines wasn’t completely halted in the US for any period of time, production was significantly slowed due to the lack of demand at the time. 

Some people believed that the promising signs of success shown in the early days of slot machines were over, and that they would simply be something written about in history books. 


The Second Wave: Electronic Slot Machines

Despite legislation and political opinions forcing many people to halt innovative slot machine manufacturing, it wasn’t long before popularity again rose.

In a move many in the gambling industry have dubbed the second wave, the development of advanced electronics helped to reinspire slot machine manufacturers. 

Not only this but, with the digital age on our horizon, the addition of technology to the industry helped dampen negative opinions towards slot machines. 

In combination with the relaxation of laws and political opinions throughout the US, many slot manufacturers came out of the woodwork to start developing their next innovations.

The first electronic slot machine to be completed and released was Money Honey, developed by Bally in 1974. Little did anyone know at the time, this was when the slot machines we know today were first created.

In this electronic game, the reels were operated electronically, but players still needed to pull the lever to start the game. This feature some slot machines still have today. 

The machine itself also introduced a number of new features, including the ability to hold reels for future spins or nudge them in order to try and create a winning combination. 

Perhaps the most substantial design difference between the Money Honey and the earlier slot machines is that they came with a bottomless hopper. This solved the issue of prize-giving, making it possible for players to receive an automatic payout of up to 500 coins when they won. 

After the release of this design by Bally, many others released their own electronic slot machines, but many also failed to garner the same success. 


Video Slot Machines

With the second wave of slot machines in full swing, many consumers were demanding further advancements to the industry. With technological advancements at their fingertips, slot machine manufacturers were more than ready to deliver.

This enthusiasm resulted in the development of the first video slot machine not long thereafter.  It was created by the Californian manufacturing company Fortune Coin Co. 

Completely doing away with traditional slot machine reels, they instead relied on showing and controlling all slot machine functions through a single 19-inch screen.

At first, this machine was extremely expensive and it struggled to gain popularity beyond the Las Vegas strip. Persistence has paid off in the decades since, however, with these machines have since become common in casinos throughout the country and, indeed, the world.

Video slot machine development didn’t stop here, however. In 1996, WMS Industries built on what Fortune Coin Co. had already created by adding a second screen. This was used to implement a bonus round, where people could win or accumulate additional prizes.

In terms of physical slot machines, the video versions are the latest we have available to us at the moment. 

Developments to advance their features continue, but the fundamentals of these pioneering companies still remain in casinos and other establishments around the country. 


Online Slots

Towards the end of the 20th century, the gambling industry as a whole experienced a dramatic change in direction when they introduced their games into the online world.

By the beginning of the 2000s, online casino websites were springing up everywhere, offering players a unique opportunity to play traditional card games with people they didn’t know via the internet.

This led to an increased interest in making slot machine games available online, but it was soon apparent that they wouldn’t work if they were developed in the same way as physical slot machines.

As a result, many independent online casinos began experimenting with their own versions of slot machine games, many of which can still be found online today.

The first to be developed and released was actually Microgaming’s ‘Cash Splash’, a game that is still loved and played by hundreds of thousands of people in the US every year.

This experimentation was key for the number of features that have been added to online casinos that you won’t find in physical slot machines. Said features include a variety in 3 reel and 5 reel slots, bonus slots, progressive slots, and mega spin slots. 



The history of slot machines is far more complex and colorful than many might at first assume. 

Many people are satisfied with the knowledge of what transpired after the second wave of slot machines and so, they don’t explore any further, to learn the true beginnings of slot machines.

Without knowing about the rise of manual slot machines in their initial stages, and the disputes about who created the first version, it’s very difficult to see how far slot machine design has come since then. 

Knowing the full history allows us to understand the adversity faced by the slot machine industry and manufacturers within it.

Many of these people risked everything to provide us with the developing technology that would enable us to create the slot machines we know and love today.

We do not know where slot machines are going next, or how we can develop them from the online stage, but it is clear to see that this is not the last innovation we’ll see in this vibrant industry.


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