The slot machine – it’s a part of western culture on both sides of the Atlantic. The one arm bandits in Las Vegas were, according to apocryphal history, put in to keep ladies entertained while their husbands were busy at the poker and blackjack tables. Yet today, they are the most popular feature of the strip, covering thousands of square feet. In the UK, meanwhile, slot machines form part of the landscape everywhere from seaside resorts to village pubs.
But did you know that the slot machine has a history dating right back to the 19th Century? Let’s take a look at those earliest games and how they have evolved into the multi-billion industry we see today, where people download and play slots on their smartphones, tablets and laptops by the thousand.
The first slot machine
There are different opinions on this point, but the most popular view is that it was a New York company called Sittman and Pitt that designed and manufactured the world’s first slot machine. The contraption contained five drums, each of which had 10 playing cards, and by inserting a coin and pulling on the lever, the player would be dealt a poker hand. Back then, there were no coin payouts, but the game would be in a shop or bar, and the owner would hand out a prize for a good hand – typically a drink or a cigar. Sharp observers might notice that there were 50 cards, not 52. The clever manufacturers left out the ten of spades and the jack of hearts, thereby reducing the odds of a royal flush!
Liberty Bells and Fruit Machines
In the early 20th century, an inventor named Charles Augustus Fey developed Sittman and Pitt’s idea into something far closer to the slots we know today. This consisted of three reels instead of physical cards, and simply had the four suits, plus the Liberty Bell as a fifth symbol. The machine automatically paid out a cash prize for three matching symbols, with a higher reward for the jackpot of three Liberty Bells.
The American public loved the new game, but unfortunately, the lawmakers took a dimmer view, and they were soon prohibited under gambling laws. However, it was not so much the game itself that was a problem, but the cash prizes. By 1907, variations on Fey’s wonderful machine were being manufactured that offered wholesome fruit as a prize, and nobody had a word to say against it.
The new design was called the Operator Bell, and the manufacturer added its own company logo, BAR, as a symbol. Now you know why traditional slots have fruit symbols and that strange logo.
From the 1910s to the 1960s, slot machines changed very little. In fact, the next major development was that they “went electric” at about the same time as Bob Dylan. Strangely, there was a similar outcry, and manufacturers felt the need to keep the familiar lever, even though a button would have served just as well.
Today, the slot games we play on our phones or in physical casinos contain the very latest tech. However, the signs and symbols of the past are there for all to see if you know where to look.