Before the 19th century drew to a close, inventors came up with a great number of mechanical gadgets to test players’ luck and skill. Among there was a pistol-like device intended to shoot coins into a hole forming the bulls-eye of a target, a punching bag that rewarded strong blows, and a coin-based poker-playing machine manufactured in Brooklyn. The latter would flip cards randomly in five windows. Depending on the strength of hands dealt, winnings were paid out.
However, the very first “coin-in-the-slot” wheel mechanism was born in San Francisco. It was called “Horseshoes,” the brainchild of a trio of German mechanics working together in an electrical shop. They created a game that paid out two nickels any time one of ten horseshoes out of 25 possible symbols appeared on a specially marked horizontal line.
By 1898, one of the three inventors, Charles Fey, had retooled the device. He lined up three separate wheels side by side. In place of horseshoes, he applied card suits and a cracked bell to trigger payouts when the spinning “reels” came to staggered stops in a winning combination. He called this invention the “Card Bell.”
Then, in 1899, stars and horseshoes were added to the three reels as winning symbols. The resulting version was renamed the “Liberty Bell,” and this is the “slot machine” widely recognized today as the forefather of all slot games.
An American Odyssey
By the time of the Great Earthquake of 1906, San Francisco had established itself as the center of the burgeoning machine gaming industry. Some 3,200 slot games had been installed around the city, which depended on them for taxes on slot revenues to the tune of six figures annually. Soon, these slot machines were a mainstay of gambling halls all across America.
Unfortunately, San Francisco’s heyday as the country’s slot capital was short-lived. In 1909, anti-gambling legislation was passed in California. That’s when production shifted to Chicago, where a slot game manufacturer named Herbert Mills replaced the symbols on the reels with cherries, oranges, plums, and lemons, which represented the various flavors of chewing gum that could be won. Exports of these reached England, where slots would be known as “fruit machines” ever after.
During America’s Prohibition years, slot machines survived in private clubs—so-called “speakeasies”—that offering gambling along with bootleg liquor. Developers of the machines hid their activities by masquerading as arcade game and vending machine makers under the banner of the National Association of Coin Operated Machine Manufacturers.
One estimate put the number of illegal machines in New York City alone at over 25,000 by 1931. That year, Nevada became the first and only state to legalize slot machines and other forms of gambling. It didn’t take long for the small southwestern railroad town of Las Vegas to adopt “one-armed bandits” and transform itself into the slot capital of the world. Bally Gaming, founded in 1931, was one of the first Las Vegas manufacturers of slot games. Its inaugural product—The Ballyhoo—offered seven plays for only a penny.
The Modern Era
By the late 1960s, Bally slots were all the rage. Their 1964 “Money Honey” game was the first to combine mechanical play with electric circuitry. To alert everyone of a jackpot, bells would ring and loud noises would be heard, drawing plenty of attention. Bally later developed the first computerized system for data control, aimed at preventing players from cheating the machines. By the 1970s, Bally ranked as the world’s leading slot manufacturer.
Meanwhile in Chicago, WMS Gaming graduated from its pinball business established in 1943 to video lotteries and then slots. Its contribution to the industry was a series of multi-line, multi-coin secondary bonus video slots, starting in 1996 with a fishing themed game called “Reel ‘Em In.” This success was followed by Jackpot Party, Boom, and Filthy Rich, all games still seen on casino floors today.
Elsewhere in the world, game manufacturers began developing slots for the markets in their own regions. Worthy of note are Australia’s Aristocrat Slots (1953), Konami Slots of Japan (1969), and Germany’s Atronic Slots (1993). Soon their exports began showing up in American casinos as well.
The world’s most successful of all slot makers, however, is International Game Technology (IGT). The company was founded in the 1950s, but didn’t dominate the markets until it went public in 1981 to introduce the most important component in any modern electronic slot machine—the “random number generator” (RNG). This technology is what allowed electronics to replace mechanics, linking computers and a video screens to simulate spinning reels.
IGT’s first major game was not actually a slot machine, however. It was something radically new—the game known today as “Video Poker.” Then, IGT rocked the industry again by introducing the world’s first progressive slot machine—Megabucks. And by acquiring Electronic Data Technologies in 1984, IGT added yet another milestone to slot history with computerized tracking of players’ actions, the foundation of all slot customer loyalty clubs.