Slot Machines: A Brief History
Germans are famous for being great engineers and it is their fellow countryman, Charles Fey, who is credited with creating the mechanic gambling device commonly known as the “slot machine.” Fey, who moved to the United States in 1885 at the age of 23, was working in 1888 as an instrument maker for California Electric Works (which later merged with Western Electric and traded as such until mid-1990s). Six years later, Fey, together with another German immigrant, Theodor Holtz, went into the business of building gambling machines, which had been gaining in popularity during the previous two decades. In 1897, Fey went on to open a company of his own.
Although Fey was not the first to create a gambling device with spinning reels (the first US patent for a similar gambling machine was awarded to yet another German-American, Gustav F. W. Schultze, in 1893), he was the first to introduce a payout in real coins, combined with a reduced number of reels and a range of different symbols. Before Fey came up with his invention, the vast majority of gambling machines had five reels and were based on a poker format (a prototype of modern-day video poker), paying out winnings in tokens and trade checks rather than real money. Fey revolutionized this approach in several stages, producing a number of different versions of the gambling machine until, in 1899, these versions evolved into the Liberty Bell, the well-known prototype of all modern slot machines.
Origin of the Name “Slot Machine”
The name slot machines or simply slots derives from the actual slot in the device where coins are inserted to start the game. This name is popular in the United States and Canada, while on the British Isles the name fruit machines is more widespread due to the common use of fruit symbols on the reels of the more traditional devices. Australians and New Zealanders remember the old days when poker machines dominated the market, and ever since those machines regained their popularity in 1970s, this time as video poker, all gambling machines are referred to Down Under as pokies.
In non-English speaking countries the name is either preserved as slot machine or a variation thereof, or has meanings which can be translated into English as for example “coin swallower” (from Spanish tragamonedas), “play machine” (Dutch gokautomat, Czech hrací automat) and so on. Others, like Swedes, Germans and Poles, use translations of yet another American nickname given to the device, the “one-armed bandit.” This name refers to the lever on the side of many slot machines, which starts the game and resembles an arm, and also to the fact that by playing slots uncontrollably one could lose a significant amount of money, as if “robbed.” The side arm became so closely associated with the slot machines that even today, when practically all slots are operated electronically, a significant number of them still retain the lever as part of their design, despite the absolute lack of any functional need for it.
Since 1899 the design of slot machines evolved gradually in line with automation technologies, but up until the early 1960s it remained largely mechanical. In 1963, Bally Manufacturing (later Bally Technologies) introduced an electromechanical slot machine called Money Honey which increased the automatic payout and reduced the need for an attendant. This model proved popular with both venue owners and patrons and paved the way for further development of electronic gambling.
The next significant step was an introduction by Walt Fraley in the mid-1970s of a video slot called “Fortune Coin.” In order to market his game Fraley had founded a company named after his invention. The technology it was based on was new and not fully reliable, but the potential it offered was definitely worth major investment, so within a couple of years Fortune Coin Co. was acquired by the newly formed IGT which soon became a major player (pun intended) on the video slot market. From then on the shift in the technology behind slot machines towards electronic gambling was only a matter of time.
By 1990s, the decade that marked the increasing popularity of the Internet, electronic gaming technology was developing at the speed of light. By the middle of the decade it had become possible to add a bonus game to a slot on a screen separate from the main game screen. The first slot machine featuring such technology was introduced to the American market in 1996 by WMS Industries.
At approximately the same time, the first online casinos started springing up, but the technology available on the PC and particularly in web browsers was still significantly behind the hard wired slot machines in brick-and-mortar casinos and other “real-world” gaming venues. This gap though didn’t exist for a long time, and within a few years online technology was en par with that of video slot machines and even surpassed it in many aspects.
Slot Machines Today
While on the one hand online technology made slot machines available to play at home or anywhere equipped with a PC or Mac, without the need to travel to a dedicated gambling venue, the rapid advance of mobile technology since the introduction of the first iPhone, on the other, made slot machines and other related games omnipresent. Although the transition of the majority of online slots to mobile-friendly versions is not yet complete, this process is well under way, so within a few years one can expect to be able to play any game in whichever format desired, be it in a casino with cocktails and tuxedos, on the couch at home, or on the go at any point in time and space. Quite a long way from a humble 1899 countertop device with three reels and one hand, isn’t it?