A History of Slot Machines: from 1891 to 2019

Learn all about the history and making of slot machines

Your Expert Guide About the History of Slots

Online slots are played by thousands of players across the globe every day and, in land-based casinos, slot machines continue to be hugely popular with gamblers too. But where did the slots that we know so well today evolve from?

The history of slot machines is a story of pioneers who altered the way people have gambled over the past century and a bit. You can still see evidence of the early slot machines in new video slots made today. Let's take a trip down memory lane and explore the fast-changing history of the most popular gambling game in the world.

1891: Sittman and Pitt Build a Poker Gambling Machine

New York-based company Sittman and Pitt created a poker gambling machine that was made up of five drums displaying 10 different cards on each. You had to pull the lever on the side to spin the reels. The better the poker hand, the more you won. The machine didn't have a payout mechanism so wins had to be paid at the bar, often in the form of free drinks or smokes. This is thought to be the earliest machine that resembles the slots we know today.

1895: Charles Fey Makes the Liberty Bell

Car mechanic Charles Fey is widely regarded as the inventor of the first mechanical slot machine, although there is quite a bit discrepancy surrounding the year he made the first cast iron Liberty Bell.

It was the first slot machine of its kind to feature an automatic payout feature. The mechanics needed to be simplified, which is why it was made up of three spinning reels instead of five. Each reel featured hearts, diamonds, spades, horseshoes and liberty bells. You'd pull the lever to spin (this pulled a spring inside the machine) and the reels would spin before coming to a halt. Three bell symbols would be the best combination, hence the name of the machine, and you could scoop the top prize of $0.50. Fey also invented a number of other gambling machines and the 'trade check separator' that was able to reject fake coins.

Charles Fey: The Man Who Started It All

Fey was born in Germany in 1862 before moving to the US as a young man to work as an engineer and mechanic. His work in France and England on early intercom and nautical instruments had marked Fey out as a genius with mechanics.

Like many pioneers, Charles Fey's work on slot machines has been overshadowed somewhat by rivals who took his ideas and ran with them. Because of the gaming laws in Fey's home state of California, he was unable to get a patent for his machine. It was a key loophole that allowed major rivals like Caille Brothers, Mills Novelty Company, and Bally to muscle in.

1902: Slot Machines Get Banned in the US

Despite the fact slot machines were banned, production continued and popularity increased. Fey and his team couldn't keep up with the demand. He kept refusing to sell the rights to big manufacturers, though, and soon other inventors began to create their own knock-off versions. Slot machines really boomed from this point and were popping up across hotels and venues around the country. They soon began to be known as 'one-armed bandits' because of their levers on the side.

1907: Herbert Mills makes The Operators Bell

Chicago-based manufacturer Herbert Mills made his own version of the Liberty Bell, The Operators Bell, that used three reels of different fruit symbols. This is where the term 'fruit machines' originates from. The Mills Novelty Co. was also the first slot machine to use the BAR symbol on the reels, which can still be found in many online and offline slots games today.

During the Prohibition period, machines began dealing out flavored chewing gum and candy rather than cash. From this point, slot machines continued to be produced and appear in hundreds of different venues.

1964: Bally Build Money Honey

The swinging sixties saw the rise of electromechanical slot machines. Bally was the first company to create a slot machine with electric reels, called Money Honey. The game still needed to start with a mechanical lever, but the electric reels were a game changer. It weighed a staggering 200lbs and was able to handle paying out hundreds of coins in one go. It was hugely popular.

1976: Fortune Coin Co. Make the First Video Slot

Las Vegas-based Fortune Coin Company developed Fortune Coin, the first ever video slot, and gave everything a futuristic leap. Some players found it took a bit of getting used to, though, as they were more familiar with the mechanical spinning reels.

It was later modified and cheat-proofed with the addition of random number generators (RNGs) when it was bought by IGT in 1978. IGT's William Redd took over the Fortune Coin Company and improved the flagship slot machine's RNG. By the end of the 70s, Fortune Coin had a better RNG, more paylines, and promised bigger payouts. It was soon a regular feature along the Las Vegas strip.

1980s: Progressives Take Over the World

IGT were on a roll after the success of the upgraded Fortune Coin, but it was when Megabucks caught on that things really took off.

The world's first linked progressive slot, Megabucks, had top prizes that were linked across multiple machines. By the end of the decade, IGT had introduced several progressive machines including Wheel of Fortune, based on the hit TV gameshow.

Today Megabucks continues to be a hit with slots players and in 2003 it awarded what is still a record for a progressive jackpot win: $38 million.

1990s: The Online Revolution

WMS Industries Inc. had been hovering around the slot machine industry for a few years, but by the 1990s they had grasped the video slot revolution by the horns.

WMS developed its first video slot with a second screen bonus. Reel 'Em In featured a fishing theme where players were able to trigger a Pick'em style bonus game. It paved the way for second screen bonuses like free spins for years to come.

A speedier and cheaper internet allowed online gambling manufacturers to start developing slots that could be played at home. Microgaming had already been operating an online casino since 1994 but launched Cash Splash in 1998, one of the world's first ever online progressive jackpot slots.

As broadband speeds and operating systems improved, the number of developers grew. Major players like NetEnt, Playtech, and Play'n GO all started up operations in the 1990s and continue to innovate and expand. Online games became slicker and became available to play through both download clients and via web browsers.

A Comparison: Liberty Bell vs. New Slot Machines

Liberty Bell Modwern Video Slots
Originated 1895-1898 1970s-present
Reels 3 3 to 7
Rows 1 3 to 4
Paylines 1 1 to 4096
Symbols per reel 5 20-40
Coin bets 5c 1c to $1000
Jackpots 5-50c $1000 to $10 million

2000s: Mobile Tech and the Future of Slots

By the early 2000s, Microgaming was busy setting records for progressive jackpots. Major Millions held the world record in 2002 for a progressive prize at $1.5 million, but within ten years the record had been broken. Mega Moolah was introduced in 2006 and has awarded several 6-figure prizes in its lifetime.

In 2015, the record for an online progressive jackpot was broken when a British soldier took away £13.2 million playing The Dark Knight at an online casino.

As smartphone technology improved, so too did the range of mobile slots. Popular online slots were optimized to work on a number of different devices. Although early mobile slots were clunky and utilized the handset's buttons, games emerged that allowed players to use the newer touch screen devices. Games now work on tablets too, with Microgaming even adapting their hit Mega Moolah slot for the Apple smartwatch.

Going forward, slot developers are only restricted by available technology and the freedom of their licensing jurisdiction. NetEnt have begun developing the first Virtual Reality (VR) slots that work with cheap VR headsets and allow for a totally immersive experience. Watch this space for 2019 and beyond!

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