Today, the slot machine is a casino institution. Taking up a huge swath of the floor of any casino and contributing tremendously to the lights and sounds characteristic of the place, they also account for as much as seventy percent for a standard casino’s revenue – it would not be outlandish to claim that slot machines are what makes casinos run.
The modern image of a slot machine has come a long way from their origins in the late nineteenth century. The predecessor to the modern slot first cropped up in saloons in San Francisco, where the machines had five reels and the icons were traditional playing card values. The prizes were usually related to the institution they were found in: free drinks, free cigars, and the like.
Considering how complicated identifying a winning poker hand could be, often a representative of the saloon had to be called over to confirm a winning “hand.” Notably, the five reels had ten icons each, leaving out the ten of spades and the jack of hearts; this automatically halved the player’s already low odds of receiving a royal flush, the highest-rewarded hand.
Charles Fey, an auto mechanic, wanted a way to automate and standardize the prizes awarded by the machines. The exact year differs by account, but sometime around 1895 he released the Liberty Bell, the first modern slot machine. Fey reduced the number of drums to three and the number of icons on each drum to five, dramatically simplifying the process of identifying a winning spin, the best of which being three cracked Liberty Bells – a high-winning symbol on most machines even today, paying out $0.50 back then.
Fey’s invention took off almost immediately and he quit his job to focus on it. Demand was so great that he was unable to keep up with all the orders coming his way from across the nation: eventually, entrepreneurs like Stephen Mill decided to adapt the design of the Liberty Bell and create new machines with different icons and payout tables, often improving on the size and weight, adding further to their popularity.
Machines continued in this way for over half a century. The difficult-to-pull handles that powered each spin eventually became iconic, and combined with their often poor odds compared to other casino games, they eventually became known as “one-armed bandits.” The iconic handle remained even after 1964, when the first microchip-powered machines hit the market. Now only requiring a button press, they became much easier to play for long streaks of time – something casino owners were very happy about.
The last great innovation was the 1975 video-based slot machine, introduced by Walt Freely. After so long seeing actual, physical reels spinning, many players were skeptical of how fair a machine entirely depicted on a screen actually was. Video poker thus took off more than video slot machines, though somewhat ironically, some slot machines became poker-themed to try and trick people into trusting them more – even though, behind the façade of poker hands, everything was just as randomized as it ever was.
Lucas is a Gaming Operator from Australia. He like to play most casino games but prefers to play free slots games online where he doesn't have to risk his hard earned money.