The History of Slot Machines

By Stan Rogers on November 14, 2018

History of Slot Machines_1

No image of a Las Vegas casino is complete without rows and rows of gleaming slot machines, and it doesn’t stop there. These days, slot machines are almost everywhere, from bars to service stations as well as on every online casino or specialist slots website. But where did these strange gaming machines come from and how did they get their unique format?

The First Slot Machines

The first slot machines appeared over 130 years ago in the United States. Based on the familiar five-card poker hands, the first machines attracted interest and made sure people understood the game. In 1891, two young entrepreneurs named Sittman and Pitt devised a machine with five rotating drums, each containing 10 different playing cards. The machine would spin at random to create your poker hand.

This machine was hugely popular, but it was held back by the fact that there are thousands and thousands of possible combinations of 10 cards over five reels. That meant that the payout could not be automated, and players had to claim their winnings at the bar.

Fine-Tuning the Slot

The modern slot as we know it came four years later when Charles Fey simplified the machine to three reels with five symbols. That meant winnings paid out on the spot, creating that instant gratification of coins clinking into the tray at the bottom of the machine. These simpler machines quickly spread across the U.S., with Herbert Mills selling them from coast to coast, everywhere from bars to barbershops.


The Origin of the Odd Symbols

Herbert Mills was not only responsible for popularizing the slot machine, but he also gave us some of its more iconic symbols and even its nickname. To get around the strict gaming laws in some states, Mills arranged for the machines to pay out gum instead of cash. The flavors of this gum featured on the reels — melon and cherry — have remained there to this day. That’s why many people refer to slots as fruit machines — because of these strange symbols. Other symbols also have their origin stories. For example, the addition of the liberty bell to slot machines appealed to the American sense of patriotism while the ubiquitous bar symbol was the logo of one of the first and most successful slot machine makers, the Bell-Fruit Corp.

Electronic Slot Machines

While there is an undeniable satisfaction in dropping your coins in and pulling a mechanical handle to start the wheels spinning, the “one-armed bandit” was slowly replaced by electronic slots from the 1960s. Bally manufacturing created the first all-electronic slot machine, Money Honey. That was the first machine to offer some of the features that we love to use today, such as nudging reels to get at winning symbols in your view or holding reels to retain favorable symbols while the other reels spin. Even these machines were soon outdated, however, as the video slot machine made its debut in 1976, leading inexorably to online slots such as the Wheel of Fortune slot, which first appeared in the mid-1990’s.

Slots Keep Growing

Although they have been around for 130 years, slot machines are still growing, and the convenience and choice of online slots make them more popular than ever. In many ways, these high levels of competition make them more attractive to players, as different slot machine sites must work harder and harder to attract new players. Most sites will now offer free spins to entice you to try their slots while others will offer massive jackpots, just like those headline machines in the foyer of the big Vegas casinos. As a result, it is not unusual to find jackpots of $1.5 million or more won by any single spin with a stake of only 50 cents. And as any Wheel of Fortune fan will know, one of the best ways to attract players is to use a theme they already know and love. Today, there are slot machines based on a broad range of interests, from favorite films and rock bands to myths and legends, from traditional “fruit machines” to machines with original and unusual side games.

Ironically, many sites now feature crossover slot machines where you can combine your love of slots with games like roulette, blackjack or even poker. That takes us right back to where we started, way back in 1891 with the original poker card machine. Like in all good slots, the wheel of fortune has come full circle!