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In 1887 in San Francisco, Charles Fey developed what is considered to be the first slot machine. The Liberty Bell slot machine was an improvement on a crude gambling machine designed in New York a few years earlier, with one major difference: 3 spinning reels and 5 symbols. The symbols were horseshoes, hearts, spades, diamonds, and a Liberty Bell, which gave the machine its name. Based on the iconic symbol of American Independence, the Liberty Bell slots gave gamblers the freedom to plop a coin in a slot, pull a lever, and win prizes.
The Liberty Bell was literally a nickel-and-dime operation. This early slot machine had to the power to payout wins by way of an automated payout system based on the reels spinning up the right combination of symbols. Players would drop a nickel in the coin slot, and give the lever a quick pull. The top payoff was 3 bells in a row, for a whopping win of 10 nickels, or 50 cents. But hey, you could get a steak dinner for 50 cents in 1887.
Early slot machines resembled ornamental cash registers of that era, which made them extremely portable – you could put them anywhere. This made them extremely popular in bars, restaurants, cigar shops, bowling alleys and barber shops all over the U.S. These little metal machines stood on 4 silver ‘feet’ on thousands of countertops and bars all over the U.S. But when the slot machines were banned under anti-gambling laws, they simply changed with the times.
A Chicago company called Mills Novelty started producing a newer version of the Liberty Bell. The newly minted machine was called the Operator Bell. Early symbols were replaced with fruit symbols, and dispensed fruit-flavored sweets as prizes. Getting 3 cherries would dispense cherry flavored gum or candy, and bar symbols replaced the Liberty Bell symbol.
These new ‘fruity’ slot machines were nicknamed fruit machines in the UK, and the name is still used for slots there today. In Australia, they call them ‘pokies’ after the poker card symbols used in early slots.
As technology got better, the humble slot machine underwent a few more game changers. Most of the heavy metal used in early slots got scrapped in favor of lighter, wooden parts. Another major change to the slot machine was in the mechanics. Soon, machines were designed with the capacity for adjustment. This meant that slot machine owners could make adjustments to the payout frequency, or volatility.
Machines that almost never paid out were called ‘tight’ machines, and slots which paid out more liberally were called ‘loose’ machines. Eventually, unscrupulous slots owners tightened their machines to never pay out at all. And this led to the popular nickname for tight slots which took all your money never paid out: the one-armed bandit.
But some clever punters came up with a way to rob the bandit: they used fake coins or coins on strings to trigger a free game. The crude coin sensors in early slots made it easy for people to game the system, especially when slots were abused by their owners. Gone was the era of the one-armed bandit getting away with highway robbery. But not for long. Soon, the technological revolution was coming to town. And this would change slots forever.
The next game changer in store for the one armed bandit came in the form of the first electromechanical slot machine. In 1963, Bally pioneered the use of electricity in slot machines, which allowed for complicated electromagnetic cores, increased numbers of symbol combinations, and much bigger payouts, including jackpots.
The first of these machines were called Money Honey, and the sweetest part of these machines was that they did not require any adjustment or constant maintenance. Even payouts could be managed and handled by the machine and the gambler alone.
Another major move in the slots world: with one fell swoop of the technological axe, the one-armed bandit lost its arm. With this new type of electronic slot machine, you could spin the reels with a press of a button instead of pulling a lever.
If antique, gear-driven, mechanical slot machines are the granddaddy of online slots, video arcade slots are the proud papa. Those vibrant, computerized video slot games which exploded on the scene in the 1980s sowed the seeds for future online casinos.
As technology marched on, video graphics and game sound increased in quality as well. Simple symbol graphics found in earlier games largely became a thing of the past. Instead of a row of fruits, bars, or bells, video game technology allowed slots to evolve with a whole new level of bells and whistles: an infinite amount of slots themes.
But the most impressive advance in slot evolution brought about by technology is the mighty jackpot. Slot machines became infinitely more complex in the digital age, and modern machines could calculate odds to the trillions of digits, and offer progressive jackpots of millions of dollars.
Early slots were janky, clanging boxes; new video slots were lean, mean, gambling machines with high quality graphics and stereo sound. And over the following decade, the technology driving video games dovetailed with the emergence of the internet, and it was only a matter of time before people would begin playing slots online for real money.
Slot machines make up 70% of a land-based casino’s gaming floor space and more than half of online casinos in cyberspace, for one simple reason: anyone can play slots. Playing slot machines requires no strategy, no dealer, and no thought process.
There is something nostalgic about plunking a coin into a machine, pulling a lever or pressing a button, and watching the reels of fortune spin. Whether the reels spin up visions of fruit candy or exotic slots adventures in cyberspace, the mighty slot machine is here to stay.