What’s Behind the Symbols on Slot Machines?

Slot machine bright neon vector symbols

Regardless of whether you call them slot machines, fruit machines, or slots, this game of chance is incredibly popular, with each version using its own visual language. In this article, we’ll take a brief look at each iteration of the slot machine and explore the different symbols they’ve used throughout their history.

Each type of slot machine and the symbols they used

The poker machine – 1891

Poker Machine in Casino, blurred background

The poker machine was invented in 1891 by Sittman and Pitt. This game had five drums, each with 10 different playing card symbols on each row. A game began when the player inserted a nickel and pulled the lever on the side of the machine. The drums spun, and when they stopped, the player received a prize based on their combination of cards on the pay line. If these cards matched one of the different types of poker hands, the player received a prize. Naturally, the more valuable the poker hand, the better the prize on offer.

Unlike the modern slot machine, the player needed to manually claim their prize from the owner or manager of the machine, as the five drums system made automatic payouts too complicated for this device. This design also came short of the 52 cards in a typical deck, which saw the removal of the ten of spades and jack of hearts.

Different sources have different views on this, but some of them believe that the wild symbol has been a part of slot machines since they were first invented. The wild symbol is seen as the equivalent of the joker in a pack of cards, which supports the argument that these symbols could have been introduced as early as the poker machine. A wild symbol offers you the chance to get a winning combination, without necessarily having a specific match on the pay line. The wild card has evolved dramatically and differs from game to game, and we’ll look at these different categories later on.

Finally, it’s important to note the influence of the playing card symbols originally used in this device, and how slot machines still make use of these popular icons to this day.

The Liberty Bell – Between 1887 and 1895

The Liberty Bell Slot Machine

Charles Fey, a car mechanic, created the Liberty Bell. The exact date for the invention of the Liberty Bell is unknown, with some sources placing its invention in 1887, and others saying it was released in 1895. What is certain is that many credit Fey as the father of the modern slot machine. His device laid down the basic design and added to the library of symbols that would be loved by players for generations.

The Liberty Bell was similar to the poker machine, but only had three drums. This was vitally important as it reduced the complexity of the combinations and allowed Fey to design an automatic payout system for it. 

Another important change was in regards to the symbols used. This machine only had three of the four card suits: diamonds, spades, and hearts. It dropped the suit of clubs and introduced horseshoes (a common symbol for luck at the time) and the Liberty Bell. Depending on the combination of symbols on the pay line, players could receive a financial payout. The best combination was three Liberty Bells, which had a jackpot of 10 nickels. 

The fruit slot machine – 1902

slot machine with three bells jackpot

The fruit slot machine was born out a legal necessity in 1902, when a ban on slot machines with cash payouts came into effect. Manufacturers of these machines decided to circumvent the ban by changing the machine in two ways.

The first change was to the prizes. Instead of cash, the payout for many machines changed to fruit-flavoured bubblegum and sweets. 

The second change was to the symbols on these machines. Instead of the three card suits, lucky horseshoe and Liberty Bell, there were different fruit symbols, such as the now iconic cherries and grapes. These symbols were introduced to match the flavours of the bubblegum and sweets that were given out as prizes. A player that managed to get three matching fruit symbols on the pay line received the correspondingly flavoured bubblegum or sweet. 

However, there was one symbol that bucked this trend: the cherry. Normally, players needed to have three matching symbols on the pay line. The cherry, the first scatter symbol, operates under a slightly different set of rules. The cherry symbols could appear in any position on the reel to win. For example, three cherries in the top, middle, and bottom row of each drum would net you a prize. 

In modern slot machines, the cherry might be replaced by another scatter symbol, and could also help a player get extra free spin rounds.

The BAR icon is also said to have evolved from the Bell-Fruit Bar Company logo that was added to the machines around this time. This symbol originally looked like a bar of gum.

The Money Honey, the first electric slot machine – 1964

Retro styled image of a vintage gaming slot machine with fruit icons

The Money Honey, developed by veteran gaming company Bally, introduced a number of new features to the slot machine. 

This machine was no longer purely mechanical, but used an electromechanical system. This change allowed Bally to introduce a multi-coin multiplier system, where players could insert three or five coins to increase their potential payout. It also introduced a bottomless hopper, allowing for payouts of up to 500 coins. 

The symbols used on this device include the traditional fruits and bells, but also the Bally logo, stars and Money Honey girl. Three of the Bally logo paid out 150 coins, while three of the fruit symbols with the bonus stars paid out 100 coins. The Money Honey girls were a scatter symbol and if you got three in any position, you received 18 coins.

The Money Honey also featured a lever, but the electromechanical system meant that it could be removed from future designs. A button system was eventually introduced to replace the lever.

The birth of the video slot machine – 1976

elderly tourist playing slot machines and gambling in casino

The Fortune Coin Company first introduced players to the video slot machine. Gone were the reels, replaced by a 19-inch Sony Trinitron screen with animated drums and symbols. A random-number generator made of logic boards, which was considered rudimentary by today’s standards, was used to drive the “luck” behind the machine. 

The switch to digital opened the door for many new features, with video slot developers introducing super jackpots by linking multiple machines across the electronic system. They also introduced a number of new concepts including:

  • Stacked or stacked wild symbols – Stacked symbols are stacked across multiple rows on a reel, therefore increasing the chance that they will land on the pay line. These stacked symbols can be regular or wild symbols, depending on the game.
  • Sticky or sticky wild symbols – Unlike other symbols, which rotate with the reel, sticky symbols maintain the same position for several spins. The player can use this to their advantage to try to land a specific sequence, for example, to trigger a specific win, or once it was introduced to the game, land a bonus round. 
  • Expanding or expanding wild symbols – When a player landed on this symbol, it would grow to fill the entire reel.

In 1996, a new feature would be added to the game by video slot software developer WMS, that would dramatically impact the way it played. Their game, Reel ‘Em In, introduced players to bonus rounds that played out on a second screen.

Generally, bonus symbols needed to land on specific lines in a specific combination in order to trigger a bonus round. The bonus game’s mechanics also varied greatly, depending on each game. For example, the bonus game might include rare multipliers that players would otherwise not have access to. 

In order for bonus rounds to trigger, games needed bonus symbols. By this point, the visual iconography used for bonus symbols differed drastically from game to game, depending on their theme. 

The introduction of online slots

As with many other games, it wasn’t long before developers began to introduce digital versions of these games so people could play slots online. At first, these were direct recreations of their offline counterparts, but due to the additional freedom these online platforms provided, game developers could add greater variety to the experience. As a result, the number of online games exploded, with each new version of online slots coming with their own symbols and icons. 

While there are too many games in existence today to unpack the meaning of the symbols in each game, thankfully the developers and providers of these slots games provide you with the tools you need to understand the visual language of the game. Some will even allow you to try the game for free so that you can learn the systems of the game before you hand over your hard earned money.

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