A History Of The Slot Machine: From Ancient Times To The Iconic Liberty Bell
September 1, 2021
By a Biometrica staffer
Slot machines are considered to be among the most lucrative games on the casino floor for both players and the house. It was just on Friday, Aug. 27 that we wrote about casinos in Nevada raking in a total of $1.36 billion from patrons in July, the highest single-month revenue from gaming for the state since gambling was legalized back in 1931. One of the main reasons behind this record haul was slot machines. Slots generated more than $873.6 million this July, a 60% increase from the same month in the previous year.
There’s no doubt that slots have become ubiquitous over the years, but the origins of this gambling invention can be traced back to places outside the casino and gaming world. Slot machines as we’ve come to recognize them today go back to the late 19th century, to a time when the earliest prototype of the machines were, in reality, mere novelties. In this first of a two-part history of the slot machine, we take you through its earliest annals, starting with a quick visit to ancient times and ending with the 1950s.
From Roman Egypt To The 20th Century
The invention of the slot machine is closely connected to another mechanical invention: the vending machine. And the first vending machine was invented during ancient times — but the reasons for its invention could not have been more dramatically different than modern times, perhaps naturally so. The world’s first vending machine is thought to have been invented during the 1st century A.D. in Roman Egypt.
It was created by the Roman mathematician and engineer Hero of Alexandria. The purpose was to dispense only a certain amount of holy water, so that the people of the city didn’t take too much of it from the temple. Hero’s device actually allowed people to drop coins into a slot, which, in turn, pushed down a bar to release only a certain amount of holy water so that everyone would get their fair share. From a fundamental perspective, Hero’s ancient vending machine is definitely similar to the vending machines of today, too.
From there, vending machines in the 17th century made their ways to England’s pubs. In early 1600s England, a smaller version of the vending machine was created to dispense sales of tobacco and snuff. While the mechanism of the device itself did not prevent customers from helping themselves to more than they’d paid for, the boxes were usually placed in a prominent position in a pub so that the inn-keeper could keep a close eye.
It was this coin-operated mechanism that further evolved in the 20th century into automatic vending machines, and from there on to coin-operated gambling devices. These early prototypes involved, for instance, a machine that had two toy horses that would race after a coin was inserted into the machine. It ended up being more of a novelty, though, rather than a direct gambling device since patrons could not bet or gamble on the device itself. Instead, these machines would be placed on a bar in a saloon or a similar establishment, and attracted wagering between patrons.
Wagers between patrons in this era would also not necessarily involve money. When it comes to most such machines in the 20th century, the proprietor would pay off winning customers in drinks, cigars, or trade checks that could be exchanged for refreshments. By the end of the 1800s, though, machines that actually paid patrons in coins came into existence. In the very first such machines that were created, coins that were inserted basically dropped onto an internal balance scale, where they may cause it to tip and spill other coins out. Devices that came a bit later had a circular display and a spinning indicator that came to rest on or pointed to a number, color, or picture.
We have to interrupt our story about the slot machine here to say that it was around this time that the coin-operated mechanism was used to create another iconic machine: the jukebox.
Charles Fey & Liberty Bell
A precursor to the modern-day slot machine was created by the company Sittman and Pitt in Brooklyn, New York, according to a San Francisco News report. The machine was incredibly rudimentary, though, and was based on poker. It used five drums with a total of 50 card faces. Players would have to spin the game’s five drums to create a poker hand combination and notch a win. The game proved popular but it was complicated for operators due to the vast number of possible wins, making an automated payout difficult to implement.
That’s when Charles Fey came into the picture. In the modern sense, the first slot machines were invented by this Bavarian-born American inventor. There are doubts about when Fey created his first machine, though. Some accounts say it was created in 1894, while others say it was between 1887–1895. Either way, the credit for bringing the slot machines into the modern era goes to Fey. But he didn’t really set out with a long-held ambition of creating such a device.
Fey had 15 older siblings and, at the age of 14, he began to help out his family, but also feared being drafted into the German army. That, combined with growing tensions between him and his father, led to Fey going to France to work as an instrument maker. Meanwhile, his uncle had made his way to New Jersey in America and so, at the age of 23, Fey decided to join his uncle. Before traveling to New Jersey, though, Fey went to San Francisco and found employment at Electric Works. He and a co-worker then started a company that competed with their employer. It was while working in his own business that he invented the slot machine.
It was roughly in 1898 that Fey built the Card Bell, the first three-reel slot machine with automatic payouts instead of the prevalent five-reel ones of the time. The Card Bell had a handle that set the reels in motion when it was pushed down and playing card suitmarks that lined up to form poker hands. Fey’s machines typically used familiar symbols: diamonds, hearts, spades. In 1899, he created a machine that had two additional symbols: horseshoes and a Liberty Bell and, thus, was born the iconic Liberty Bell slot machine.
On the Liberty Bell machines, if three bells lined up in a row, it signaled the top payout. Tragically, because of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, only four of the over 100 Liberty Bell machines built by Fey have survived. The Liberty Bell was so popular among saloon patrons in San Francisco that it was quickly copied by Fey’s competitors, like the Mills Novelty Company of Chicago. But by the time San Francisco banned slot machines in 1909, there were said to be more than 3,000 machines in existence. In a bid to circumvent the law, Fey and his competitors went back to the older methods of building machines without coin slots, switching payouts to other surreptitious methods, perhaps through drinks and cigars.
Eventually, because of San Francisco’s ban, most slot machine factories moved, and a huge number of them ended up in Chicago.
From Bells To Fruits In The 21st Century
In the early 1900s, with legal bans still in place on gambling and slot machines, operators devised another way to make their machines acceptable. This was allegedly first done by the Industry Novelty Company in around 1909 by using symbols of fruits on the reels. The fruit symbols were suggestive of various flavors of chewing gum. A few machines that were built then actually did dispense gum.
Industry Novelty’s idea was then copied by the Mills Novelty Company. The Mills Novelty Company also invented the jackpot in around 1916, making certain combinations of the symbols regurgitate all the coins in the machine. In the 1920s, slot machines were popular throughout much of the country. They continued to be popular into the Great Depression years. But with organized crime often controlling the distribution of slot machines, their sales, transportation, and use was once again restricted to private social clubs. Prohibition outside Nevada, which had re-legalized gambling in 1931, was virtually total by 1951. In the 1950s, electromechanical slot machines allowed many new payout schemes, such as 3- and 5-coin multipliers, where the sizes of the payouts are proportional to the number of coins inserted before the handle is pulled.
It was only after World War II that these machines ended up being used at a global level, as governments were attracted to the prospect of tax revenue. In 1988, for instance, slot machines were permitted in French casinos, ending a 50-year ban.
What happened once governments discovered it could be used to generate more in tax revenue? That’s a story for another day, in the second part of our mini series on the slot machine.