For most casino games, the term “genius” is applied only to players—those who come up with innovative ways of beating the House out of money, usually with new systems or strategies of play. But when it comes to slot machines, the real brainiacs are the ones who understand the guts within the cabinets—the engineers, electricians, programmers and inventors who build, modify or upgrade the devices so affectionately know as “one-armed bandits.”
In the Beginning …
Three San Francisco based mechanics working in an electrical shop deserve credit for inventing the first true slot machine. However, only one of them, a German immigrant named Charles Fey, gets to be remembered as the first “genius” of slots. In 1898, he was responsible for coming up with the idea of turning the original single-wheel game into a machine with three reels and staggered stops to determine the winner. More reels meant more combinations of symbols, which in turn meant the possibility of bigger payouts. Fey used card symbols on the reels for his prototype, but later added stars, horseshoes and a “Liberty Bell” symbol that still shows up on reels to this day.
In 1909, anti-gambling legislation ended San Francisco’s dominance of the slot world. But by then, a Chicago-based slot manufacturer named Herbert Mills had come up with a way to make slots pay out in chewing gum and get around gambling bans. He replaced reel symbols with illustrations of cherries, oranges, plums, and lemons—the flavors of the gum dispensed for certain winning combinations. Mills machines are valuable antiques now, but they were exported widely, especially to England, where pub slots are referred to as “fruit machines” to this day.
Another pioneer genius of early slot history was a Stanford University-trained engineer named Henry Williams. In 1943, while almost all of American industry was focused on the War effort, Williams realized that a generation subjected to such strife would soon need to heal itself through amusement. He founded Williams Gaming and began designing a new generation of pinball machines based upon a little invention of his—the “tilt” mechanism. From there, the company moved on to other recreation equipment, including home video in the 1980s video lottery terminals in the 1990s and the world’s first-ever multi-line, multi-coin secondary bonus video slot game—the classic “Reel ‘Em In.” Today, WMS Gaming is among the biggest manufacturers of slots in the world.
More Modern Geniuses
Among the “evil geniuses” of slots history, Tommy Glenn Carmichael has to rank among the world’s most infamous. He was an acknowledge slot cheat, who took pride in being able to beat the security systems on any machine. In the 1980s, he used a device called the “top-bottom joint” to defraud machines. After serving time in jail, he invented an even more sophisticated tool that he named the “monkey paw.” With it, he could trip the payout switch in electronic slot machines to make them release cash or add credits to a machine at will.
Carmichael went on from there to develop a light wand that could deceive optical sensors. When slot makers came up with an anti-theft device called the “Actuator Arm,” he countered with his own invention called “The Hanger” to trip it up. No slot engineer was more clever, but casino security eventually caught Carmichael in the act once again. After serving more time in prison, he decided to “go straight” by becoming a security consultant to casinos.
Among the most recent geniuses to leave a lasting impression on the slot world was Robert Phillip Manz (1946~2012). He started his slot-designing career in Chicago with Bally Manufacturing in 1970, and by 1987 he had been transferred to Las Vegas, where he came up with the idea for an innovative new three-reel slot that he called “Blazing 7s.” The game incorporated several innovations that would eventually become standard aspects of slots, such as “near-wins” and grouping slots together in “banks.” Manz was also responsible for another classic three-reel hit known as “Black and White.”