THE ‘ONE ARMED BANDIT’ IN THE BEGINNING

When most people think of casino gambling the first game that comes to mind is a slot machine. Slot machines are used in advertising, casino promotion and co-opted for a variety of other uses. Although the popularity of slot machines is not what it used to be due to competition from video poker and other games they’re still a staple of any online or land based casino. The slot machine has seen a number of changes throughout the years but in one form or another they’ll be part of the casino experience for the foreseeable future.

With so many options for gambling enthusiasts today it’s somewhat surprising that slot machines remain so popular. Some suggest that their appeal is a component of their simplicity. Anyone can quickly and intuitively figure out how to play. That may have been true at one point but the ‘state of the art’ in slot machines trend toward complexity with ‘bonus games’ and ‘skill features’. Another theory is that they’re ‘less intimidating’ than table games or more complex activities like sports betting. Perhaps the most compelling theory is that slot machines boil the emotional and mental appeal of gambling down to it’s essence–press a button and experience the ‘roller coaster ride’ that all gamblers know so well.

IN THE BEGINNING….

So where did slot machines come from? How did they become a staple of casinos? When did they start to evolve into the multimedia experience that they are now? The origin of slot machines is interesting–although video poker wouldn’t catch on in the casino until the 1980’s the original predecessor to the slot machine was the prototypical ‘video poker’ experience. The first device resembling a slot machine was also the first resembling a video poker machine. It was released in 1891 by the Brooklyn based Sittman and Pitt Company and had five reels each with ten different playing cards. The player would insert a coin and pull the handle to make the drums spin. Once they stopped the five spots would form a poker hand. The machine itself didn’t pay out–instead, the store or shop where it was located awarded prizes such as free food, booze or cigars.

The pioneering slot machine was invented in the late 1800’s (no later than 1895) by a car mechanic turned machinist named Charles Fey. He solved one of the technological limitations that prevented the poker machine from being able to make payouts. There were just too many combinations of poker hands. Fey solved that problem by reducing the number of reels to three and reducing the 10 cards to 5 symbols: diamonds, hearts, and spades were well known from playing cards. To these symbols Fey added horseshoes and a Liberty Bell. The Liberty Bell became iconic and Fey used the name for his first machine.

A BOOMING BUSINESS

The draconian anti-gambling hysteria of the time made it impossible for Fey to patent his device so he went to work building as many as possible, renting them directly to locations such as bowling alleys, cigar stores, bars, barbershops or anywhere else where men gathered (few women gambled at this point). His home state of California quickly passed a law banning slot machines but demand from other states kept Fey busy. He was also responsible for other innovations–when cheating the machine with fake coins became a problem Fey designed the first ‘detecting pin’ to distinguish real coins from fakes.

Fey was good at designing and building slot machines but not so good at running a business built around them. He did well when there was no competition but it wasn’t long before copycat machines appeared on the market. Initially, gaming supply companies sought to buy manufacture and distribution rights to Fey’s machine but he refused to sell. At that point, many simply built their own versions of the ‘Liberty Bell’. The competition started to erode Fey’s business but the most serious blow came when his San Francisco based slot machine factory was destroyed in an earthquake. Fey would then fade into obscurity and watch others become rich off of the device he originally invented.