In our previous article we talked about Charles Fey, who is largely credited with the creation with the first forerunner of the modern slot machine. Fey was the first too develop a game that could handle payouts on its own. Previous games that awarded prizes needed some ‘human intervention’–an employee of the shop, store or bar where the machine was located would award some prize to winners such as food, cigars or other small items. This had the advantage of allowing the gambling component to take place ‘under the table’ but wasn’t the most efficient way to operate.

Fey changed all of that–he was the first to create a three reel slot machine and the first to develop automatic payouts. His Liberty Bell slot machine was a true pioneer but Fey wasn’t much of a businessman. He chose to rent directly to locations and refused offers to buy or lease a machine. He was also approached by many gambling equipment companies seeking a deal that would allow them to manufacture and distribute his game. He declined all of these as well. The problem for Fey was that he had no patent on his device and knock offs started to appear throughout the country.


Herbert Stephen Mills inherited the ‘Mills Novelty Company’ from his father Mortimer Mills and was one of the individuals wanting to license Fey’s design. When Fey refused, Mills went about creating his own version of the Liberty Bell game–or did he? There’s some speculation that Fey and Mills went into business together though there was no formal evidence that was the case. At any rate, Mills was every bit the businessman that Fey wasn’t and it wasn’t long that the Mills Novelty Company began to dominate the slot machine industry.

Mills was an innovator–he was the first to use assembly line manufacturing techniques on slot machines which earned him the nickname the ‘Henry Ford of slot machines’. He was smart enough not to try and ‘fix what wasn’t broken’ but he knew that he had to constantly improve upon his product to keep sales brisk. On the original ‘Mills Liberty Bell’ game he tried to design it to be qualitatively superior to the competition with a cast iron case that had the Liberty Bell design engraved into the front. The original model also had cast iron feet though that was replaced with ornate wooden feet on subsequent models.

The game didn’t change the designs on the reels, however, and continued to use playing card suits like clubs and diamonds. The Liberty Bell also featured a bell that sounded whenever the player won some money. Interestingly, the bell wasn’t an immediate hit and was removed not too long after it was introduced. It would be revived many years later and became an ubiquitous part of slot machine design. Between Mills’ business acumen and the superior product he was turning out his company was able to marginalize any competition that entered the market.


By 1910, it was hard to find a bar, barbershop or cigar store that *didn’t* have a slot machine. Mills’ company continued to dominate the industry over the next few years and by 1920 had expanded into Europe to become the dominant slot machine builder internationally. At that point, his factories were building nearly 30,000 gaming machines per year. It was about this time that Mills came upon another innovation that would become commonplace. He released a new version of the Liberty Bell design named the Operator Bell. It was one of five different variations of the basic Liberty Bell design produced by Mills and had a coin entry more closely resembling modern coin slots. Most significantly, however, it eliminated the card suit symbols on the reels and replaced them with fruit symbols. These symbols would become synonymous with slot machines to the point that they’re referred to as ‘fruit machines’ in England.

What’s interesting is that Mills’ company grew and prospered despite the fact that there were no legal casinos in North America. The Mills Company maintained a dominant position in the industry for the next few decades but the business once again underwent seismic changes when Nevada legalized gambling in 1931 and slot machine production exploded.