Slots haven’t been around for nearly as long as card or board games but they’ve made up for lost time. In the US today there is one machine for every 357 citizens and they’re even more popular in Japan. Join us as we take a look back at just how far these machines have come in the last 129 years.
The first gambling novelty machines (early 1800s)
The story of slots starts in the 1800s in saloons across the United States. Bar owners would place novelty machines on the bar to amuse patrons as they consumed their favourite tipple. These machines usually took the form of a couple of toy horses that would ‘race’ whenever a coin was dropped into a slot. It wasn’t long before patrons began to bet on the horses and, if willing, a saloon owner would give winners specially minted metal tokens they could exchange for drinks or cigars. In the late 1800s, some machines were built with an internal balance scale that would tip and spill out coins after a certain number of coins had been inserted.
The slot machine is born (1895)
As they say, progress never sleeps, and it wasn’t long until an innovator of his time saw the entertainment and business potential of these novelty betting machines.
Charles August Fey was born in Bavaria but lived most of his life in the United States. He was working as a mechanic in San Francisco when he invented the world’s very first coin-operated gambling machine called the 4-11-44 (quite a mouthful!). The year was 1895 and the machine’s popularity grew so quickly at his local saloon that he gave up his job and set up a factory to satisfy the growing demand for this barroom entertainment.
Spurred on by his success, Fey created the Card Bell in 1898. This was effectively the birth of the very first three-reel slot machine. It worked by pulling a handle that set the reels in motion, and playing card suit-marks lined up to form poker hands. But with so many potential winning combinations, Fey had not yet found a way to create a machine that could make automatic payouts. Winners were paid from the bar, usually with free drinks and cigars.
The Liberty Bell’s automatic payout mechanism (1899)
Fey’s next invention was the Liberty Bell. This time, the machine had a much simpler automatic mechanism of three spinning reels with five symbols: horseshoes, diamonds, spades, hearts and a Liberty Bell. With five cards instead of 10, and three reels in place of the original five drums, the problem slots had had in the past of ‘reading’ a win was largely solved.
The possibility of getting the biggest payout (50 cents, or about 39 pence by today’s standards) with three bells in a row, was the start of one of the gambling industry’s biggest success stories.
In 1909, slot machines were banned in San Francisco, but this did nothing to dampen their appeal. To get around the law, Fey and other slot machine manufacturers (who had copied the mechanic’s original design) built machines without coin slots. Instead, transactions took place across the bar with payouts in drinks, cigars and other commodities. The majority of San Francisco factories moved to Chicago to continue the evolution of the now wildly popular gambling machine.
Rise of the fruit machine (1920s)
One of Fey’s competitors, Herbert Mills of Mills Novelty Company, at first used the same symbols on the reels of his Liberty Bell machines, copied from Charles Fey. Later, he created a similar machine called the Operator’s Bell, which was designed with an optional chewing gum vending attachment. Since the gum used in the machine was fruit-flavoured, corresponding symbols of fruit were placed on the reels. There was also a bell and image of a stick of Bell-Fruit Gum – the origin of the bar symbol. With the popularity of the fruit symbols, other slot machine manufacturers like Caille, Watling, Jennings and Pace, began to use them too.
It took until 1916 for the Mills Novelty Company to come up with the idea of a “jackpot” – whereby a machine would dispense all its coins to one lucky winner when certain combinations of symbols occurred. In the 1920s and throughout the economic hardships of the Great Depression in the 1930s, slots grew in popularity as the hope of winning fired the imagination in these depressing times.
Going electromechanical (1960s)
As soldiers returned from areas of operation at the end of World War II, gambling machines were in demand the world over and governments began to think about their potential for drawing in tax revenue. In 1963, Bally Manufacturing of Chicago created the first fully electromechanical slot machine. It was called Money Honey and it was the first slot machine with a bottomless hopper and automatic payout of up to 500 coins that did not require the help of an attendant. In fact, it was the Money Honey that led to the explosion of electronic games, with the side lever soon becoming vestigial.
Secure video next (1976)
In the 1960s and early 70s, certain punters were finding ways to manipulate and cheat the older classical and three-reel slot machines. It is this state of affairs that prompted game developers to set about finding new ways to avoid mechanical and electro-mechanical reels in order to keep their machines safe from cheats. They did this by creating slots that had a video screen on which the reels were superimposed instead of mechanical parts.
This not only kept machines secure, it also allowed the launch of a whole new range of machines with bonus features and many more paylines. Video machines also lent themselves to screen animations and vastly improved sound effects. These days, whether you prefer to play slots at a land-based casino or online, you will see that most machines are still video.
Casino slots earn their keep (1980s)
In the 1980s, slot machines were placed in high traffic areas in casinos – usually in a corridor or near a lift. The reason? Casino managers needed to provide entertainment for the wives and girlfriends of serious gamblers who played high-stakes games like blackjack or craps. Since the wives and girlfriends were doing nothing more than killing time while their men gambled, the distraction had to take up as little casino floor space as possible. From the time slots first appeared in casinos, their popularity began to grow as well as the amount of money they brought in. By 2003, they accounted for 70 to 85 percent of casino revenue and today Nevada alone has about 200,000 slot machines.
In 1986, electronic systems were introduced to link many different machines across locations and allow a fraction of each inserted coin to go into a shared “super jackpot,” which could skyrocket in value before being won. In 2003, a Las Vegas slot machine paid out nearly £300 million to one lucky winner!
Online anywhere, anytime (2000s)
With the advent of the internet, gambling enthusiasts could now play slots online, first from their computers or laptops, and then on tablets and smartphones.
Like bingo and online scratchcard games, online slots are easy to get the hang of, even if you’ve never played before. You can also qualify for bonuses or rewards when you sign up with certain online sites or make your first deposit. There’s no need to sacrifice the social side of gambling either. When you play online, you can join friendly chat rooms and take part in forums that allow you to interact with like-minded people.
Both land-based and online slot machines use random number generator programs. The main difference between those used at online casinos and land-based clubs is the technology they use to access the results – online slots use an animation that sends your results to your mobile device via the internet. Otherwise, they are quite similar. The main difference when you play online is that you can easily change between games, moving on to online bingo or a digital scratchcard game without leaving your seat.
We’re keeping an eye out for the next wave of technology to take online gambling to the next level. We’re guessing it might have something to do with Virtual and Augmented Reality that will, in the not too distant future, bring the casino to you, wherever you are. Imagine enjoying an authentic 4D casino experience and even being able to control a number of additional elements of the gambling experience?
In the meantime, when you play online slots responsibly, you’re in for a world of fun. At Mecca Bingo we’d love to Mecca Millionaire of you! We have a variety of jackpot slots that offer prize pots of over £1 million, and you can play for just pennies. You can also play Bingo or choose from a huge selection of games and casino classics. So why wait? Join us now.