Slot Machine History

Slot machines are popular the world over and are known by many names. In the United Kingdom they are referred to as either fruit machines or one-armed bandits, in Oceania they are known as Pokies and in Japan they are called Pachisuro. However, they all originated from machines in use in the USA in the late 1900’s.

The Early History

The original slot machines were based around playing cards. The machines would contain five reels each containing a different playing card, the combination of cards offering prizes. The games were open to manipulation by owners of the bars where they were played. This happened because the order of the barrels could be changed, and as only fifty cards appeared on the machine, the Ten of Spades and the Jack of Hearts would be removed making big hands like Royal Flushes far less likely. The prizes from the machines were also paid on an ad hoc basis, in the form of alcohol or cigars. These games were developed in New York, although around the same time, Charles Fey, a German immigrant, was developing a similar system on the west coast.

The First Machine

Charles Fey took a different approach to the playing card system, wanting a fairer game where all the combinations could be achievable. Instead of playing cards, six symbols were used – Diamonds, Hearts, Horse Shoes, Spades, Stars and the cracked Liberty Bell, the iconic symbol of American Independence in Philadelphia. The game cost a nickel and after spinning, if all three symbols in a row were the same, the game would pay out – three Liberty Bells in a row paying out the top prize of $0.50. This original game is still on show in the Liberty Belle Saloon in Reno, Nevada.

The Growth of Slots

Charles Fey immediately quit his job as a car mechanic and rented his machines to bars and saloons for an equal share of the profit. As these gaming machines grew more popular, as did competition for Fey. Herbert Stephen Mills lunched a machine called the ‘Operator Bell’ around this time amid conflicting rumors that Mills had both secured a machine unlawfully, or that he actually went into business with Charles Fey. The games began to be made on a production line, with the Mills factory producing games for all over the world, with five different variations of the game. In 1909 gambling laws changed and cash prizes were not allowed to be dispensed, which led to the manufacturers giving out prizes such as gum. A popular theory is that this is where the fruit symbols actually come from, with different flavored fruit gum being given out as prizes. The BAR symbol seen on Slots today is identical to the “Bell Fruit Gum” logo on early machines.

The original machines were made of cast iron, and therefore highly immobile, although this changed in the 1930’s when the games moved to cheaper wooden cabinets. The games grew and grew, and there was a particular explosion when gambling was legalized in Nevada in 1931.

The Electronic Slots

One problem for slots manufacturers and owners was the ease of manipulation of the machines. Some early games could easily be stopped using a rod to ensure all three reels were the same, and the operator’s profits would be hit. This all changed with the introduction of electronic machines in 1964. This achieved games that were more secure and it also meant that operators were able to offer increased Jackpots.


As the technology of the games improved, so did the size of the games. More and more reels were added to machines, meaning certain combinations were extremely unlikely to be hit which made incredible bonuses possible. The games could also be a lot more complicated, with side games, bonus rounds and many other features appearing on the slots. Games appeared where players could play with higher stakes that promised higher winnings, and the ability to link some machines with others led to even greater Jackpot prizes – these prizes sometimes being life changing sums of money.

Online Slots Introduction

Online casinos began as soon as technology allowed, although it wasn’t obvious that slots would become popular online. Many assumed that one of the beauties of a slot machine was seeing actual reels spinning, and when video slots were first introduced in bars (long before the internet) there was some negativity, as the randomness of the machines was questioned. However, this negativity was soon overcome, as online casino sites offered bigger, better and more exciting games, and the randomness problem has been somewhat diffused by the rigorous testing of the sites, with the casinos happily displaying certificates verifying they are truly fair. The ability to play both at home or on the go has also helped the boom in online slots.

Slots have come a long way since the early days of the playing cards games, but the thrill of seeing all of those symbols in a row has never changed, and long may it continue.

Associate Writer: Geoff enjoys both live and online poker as well as casino games, and is particularly knowledgeable about the legal landscape of online gambling.