History of Slot Machines: From Analog to Digital

Today's slot machines are highly advanced and offer excellent graphics and complex features. For example, some online slots feature hundreds or even thousands of ways to win plus cascading reels. But there was a time when slot machines were entirely mechanical with no digital aspect whatsoever. We're going to journey back to this point and go through the decades, discussing all the major slots developments since the late 1800s.

Sittman and Pitt's Precursor to the Slot Machine

Many accounts of the history of slot machines begin with inventor and mechanic Charles Fey (discussed next). However, these versions are missing a key event-Sittman and Pitt developing a precursor gambling machine that served as a template for Fey's invention. The Brooklyn-based company created a gambling machine with five drums and 50 poker cards. This game cost a nickel to play and required players to pull a level. The drums would spin and display a five-card poker hand. Players who got good poker hands could collect a prize (e.g., free beer, cigar) from the attendant/bartender after winning. While Sittman and Pitt's invention was quite popular in saloons, its notable handicap included not being able to automatically award prizes.

Charles Fey Invents the Liberty Bell

San Francisco-based inventor Charles Fey came up with the idea for a simpler version of Sittman and Pitt's game. He replaced the five drums with three reels, each of which held five symbols-diamonds, hearts, horseshoes, spades, and a Liberty Bell. The latter is what came to define the first slot machine. Fey finished developing the Liberty Bell in 1894 and mass marketed the nickel machine the following year. The Liberty Bell was an instant hit because it accepted coins, simplified winning combos, and could automatically deliver cash prizes, including the top win of $0.50 for three bells. Saloons preferred these machines because they no longer had to deliver manual payouts. Soon, many saloons throughout the San Francisco area and beyond offered a Liberty Bell slot machine.

Slots Bans & Copycats

Charles Fey quit his day job as a mechanic when his slot machines took off. However, his gravy train would slow after a decade due to two reasons: stricter laws against gambling, and copycat game developers. Regarding the first point, Chicago-based inventor Henry Mills became the first known copycat after releasing the Operator Bell in 1908. The Operator Bell was basically a Liberty Bell replica with different symbols. The Industry Novelty Company produced the first fruit machine, named for its fruit flavors. The fruit symbols represented different flavors of chewing gum, which the machine used as prizes. This same company did provide an innovation with the jackpot concept, which delivered all coins in the machine for the best symbol combination. As for legal issues, growing concerns in San Francisco and other US areas created discontent over slot machines. San Francisco prohibited slots in 1909, meaning over 3,300 machines in the city were now illegal.

Slot Machines Remain Popular Despite Bans

Slots development slowed in the 1910s and 20s as bans become more common. Nevertheless, these machines still remained popular and common in some parts of the country. Many prohibited machines moved to Chicago, which took a more relaxed approach to gambling at the time. Saloons used slots to stay afloat during the Great Depression years of the 1920s and early 30s. Las Vegas becoming a gambling haven in the 30s and offering slot machines by the 40s also provided a boost. Vegas remained a constant while more cities and states made gambling illegal. By the 1950s, few jurisdictions outside of Vegas/Nevada allowed slot machines.

The First Electromechanical Slot Machine

Decades passed without a major upgrade to slots until 1963. This is the year when Bally released Money Honey, the first electromechanical slot. Money Honey had a bottomless coin hopper that didn't need constant maintenance. Its big coin hopper allowed for larger payouts, including a jackpot worth 500 coins (huge for the time). Bally still used a lever for this game like with all slot machines before it. However, electricity operated the reels and marked a gradual turn away from mechanic reels. Developers eventually began ditching the lever in favor of buttons and an increasingly electrical device.

Invention of the Video Slot

Money Honey served as a nice bridge between old and modern slots. The Fortune Coin Co crossed this bridge by creating the first video slot in 1976. This game used a Sony Trinitron color monitor to display the slots spins and results. Fortune Coin housed the monitor and other inter-workings of the game in a cabinet to dress it up. After a trial at the Las Vegas Hilton, Fortune Coin Co worked out a few kinks with video slots to prevent cheating. The Nevada Gaming Commission approved the model, thus leading to a new era in Vegas gambling and beyond. International Gaming Technology (IGT) would soon purchase the video slot machine concept from Fortune Coin in 1978.

Rising Popularity of Video Slots

Video slot machines did not instantly take over the gaming world. In fact, many players were wary of them due to the electronic display and programming aspects. They preferred and trusted a machine that had more physical inter-workings like the electromechanical design. The rise of video poker in the early 1980s helped change perceptions on total electronic gaming. Players quickly took to video poker machines, which warmed them to the idea of slots. Video slot machines would later become the dominant force in casinos because of all their possibilities. Developers could add more reels, bigger jackpots, extra symbols, and features. Regarding the latter, WMS Industries developed the first second-screen bonus round through Reel 'Em in 1994. The Reel 'Em bonus was a big step forward for gaming features.

Online Slots Enter the Gambling World

Slot machines had grown immensely in popularity, but they were still missing a significant market-players who didn't want to travel to a gambling destination. The 1990s were still a time when American gambling was confined to Vegas, Atlantic City, and limited tribal casinos. Enter online slots, which allowed players to spin the reels from home. They merely needed to download casino software back then, make a deposit, and start playing for real money. As with video slots, players didn't initially trust online casinos because they're remote. But by the 2000s, gamblers had warmed up to online slot machines and depositing their money with gaming sites. This comfort, combined with huge slots bonuses that weren't available in land-based casinos, drew more and more players to gaming sites. The advent of mobile slots in the mid-2010s only increased this trend.

Innovative Features in Online Slots

The land-based slots world still provides some innovation, especially regarding branded movie and TV slot machines. But some of the biggest developers like IGT have moved into more of a manufacturing role. Meanwhile, online slots are all about the hottest games, which has led to an uptick in innovations. Many of the latest features come from mobile developers like RealTime Gaming, Betsoft, ELK Studios, and Nolimit City. Such unique features include cascading reels, cluster pays, expanding wilds, Megaways, bonus buys, and win multipliers. These innovations have made slots more entertaining by adding complexity to the gameplay. As a result, players crave much more than the old 3-reelers of the past.

Where Are Slot Machines Headed?

The slot machine has seen many changes since Charles Fey produced the Liberty Bell in 1894. It has gone digital and is no longer confined to the 3 mechanical reels of Fey's invention. Slot machines feature more paylines, reels, betting options, and symbols. Plus they've gone digital and now offer features that just weren't possible in Fey's time. Modern video slots with thousands of winning ways, cascading reels, and win multipliers may not seem like they can go any further. However, we envision much more to come from slot machines in future decades. Virtual reality elements and wilder features are possibilities to look for from future land-based and online slots.