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The History of Slots

History of Slots

Even though the first slot machines were produced in the United States well over a century ago, slot games are relative newcomers compared to other casino games such as Roulette and Keno. Even the popular game, Blackjack, pre-dates slot games. Referred to as “Ventiuma” by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra in his book, “Rinconete y Cortadillo,” Blackjack made its literary debut as far back as 1601, a few years before de Cervantes Saavedra penned his better-known classic, “Don Quixote.”

Since slot games are among the most recently developed games played in today’s casinos, the history of slots is easier to trace than the history of older games. Despite the history of slots being fairly well documented, however, discrepancies still exist in the different accounts that detail the history of slot machines.

East Coast vs West Coast

While German immigrant, Charles Fey, is widely considered the “Father of Slot Machines,” there is debate about whether or not he created the world’s first slot machine in his San Francisco workshop. Some reports claim that Fey created the first slot machine in 1887, while others say he invented his version of the machine eight years later. The difference between the years that Fey is said to have made his slot machine is significant to the history of slot machines because the Brooklyn-based Sittman and Pitt Company was developing its own slot machine around the same time Fey was creating his prototype.

The Sittman and Pitt Company’s initial slot machine was based on poker, a game that many East Coast residents were familiar with in the late 1800s. The machine, originally produced in 1891, consisted of a casing that held five rotating drums that each had the faces of ten playing cards on them.

In general, the faces of the ten of spades and the jack of hearts did not appear on any of the game’s drums. Leaving these cards out cut the odds that a player would hit the best paying outcome, a royal flush, in half. Slot machine owners could further manipulate the game by rearranging the order of the drums in the machine to reduce the chances someone would win.

Since it was based on poker, the goal of a player using a machine produced by Sittman and Pitt Company was to get the combination of card faces that represented the best possible poker hand after the drums stopped spinning. The higher the hand you got, the better the prize you received. Even though it cost five cents per spin, Sittman and Pitt Company’s slot machine did not pay cash prizes. Instead, what people were given for a winning spin depended entirely on where they were playing. As these machines were most often found in bars, you normally would have gotten a drink, cigar or a pack of cigarettes if you ended up with a winning spin.

Fey's Original Machine

While Sittman and Pitt Company’s slot machine was revolutionary in its own right, Fey’s slot machine is generally viewed as the true predecessor of today’s slot machines. Fey’s original machine made it easier to recognize winning spins because it had only three reels instead of five. Additionally, rather than card faces, Fey used symbols to distinguish the suit of a card on the machine’s reels — diamonds, hearts, horseshoes and spades. In addition to having one of each of those symbols, the reels in Fey’s machine also had the image of the Liberty Bell on them — which gave Fey’s original slot machine its name, Liberty Bell.

Fey’s machine differed from the machines made by Sittman and Pitt Company in ways other than just making winning spins easier to identify, too. For instance, Liberty Bell had a large handle or lever people would push or pull in a downward direction to make the machine’s drums spin. The machine also had a built-in coin acceptor that took the five-cent coins required to play.

Liberty Bell had a payout table which informed players about how much each winning combination of symbols would pay as well. A typical payout table showed you would win two coins if your spin produced two horseshoes. It also indicated you would win as many as 20 coins if you got the machine’s top spin, three bells.

Fey tested Liberty Bell in a San Francisco saloon, and it was warmly received by the establishment’s patrons. With the success of this test, Liberty Bell became wildly popular. With demand for his slot machines spreading throughout his home city and beyond, Fey decided to focus all of his efforts on producing his slot machine. Instead of selling his slot machines, however, Fey capitalized on their popularity by renting them to different venues for a 50 percent commission.

Mills Novelty Company

While it is generally accepted that Fey initially refused to sell the manufacturing and distribution rights to his slot machines despite receiving offers from numerous gaming manufacturers, questions about what actually transpired between him and at least one of his direct competitors persist to this day. In 1907, the Mills Novelty Company started producing its own slot machine, the Mills Liberty Bell, which was based on the design of Fey’s original Liberty Bell. What remains in question is the nature of the relationship that existed between Charles Fey and the Mills Novelty Company.

According to some accounts, Charles Fey willingly entered into a working relationship with Mills Novelty Company. According to others, the Mills Novelty Company began producing the Mills Liberty Bell after a burglary occurred in a San Francisco saloon. During the robbery, which occurred shortly before the Mills Novelty Company started making slot machines, only two items were taken: an apron and one of Fey’s slot machines. Some suspect the stolen slot machine was used as the model for the machines Mills Novelty Company manufactured.

Regardless of the circumstances that led Mills Novelty Company to produce slot machines, the Mills Liberty Bell successfully squashed its competition because it was easier to install than other machines were. Demand for the Mills Liberty Bell was so great that Herbert Stephen Mills, who had inherited the Mills Novelty Company from his father, used assembly-line tactics to make the Mills Liberty Bell. Since Mills used an assembly-line setup similar to what an iconic American automaker used to produce vehicles, Mills eventually became known as the “Henry Ford of Slot Machines.”

Mills changed the look of Fey’s original machine, producing slot machines in cast iron cases with feet and toes made from the same material. The redesigned machine also had a bell that rang when a person landed a winning combination of symbols. The new version of the slot machine included ten additional symbols on each reel as well, which increased the number of potential winning combinations of symbols from 1,000 to 8,000.

While the bell and toes were eventually removed from the Mills Liberty Bell, the machine’s blueprint still serves as the model for modern slot machines — although the technology used in today’s machines is significantly more advanced.

In 1910, the Mills Novelty Company made additional changes to the Mills Liberty Bell and rebranded the machine as the Operator Bell. The Operator Bell had fruit symbols on its reels and had a coin deposit slot that resembled the neck of a goose. The shift to the use of fruit symbols, which are still widely used today, may have been inspired by a 1909 law that made it illegal for slot machines to dispense cash to winners. Instead of receiving coins, slot machines rewarded winning players with chewing gum. The flavor of the gum a winner received depended on the symbols that came up on a winning spin.

Both the cherry and melon symbols are believed to have been the result of this trend. The BAR symbol that is used in many of today’s slot machines was derived from the Bell Fruit Gum Company’s logo — an emblem representing a pack of chewing gum — during the same time period.

Evolution of Slot Machines

While changing laws regarding gambling and Prohibition forced the majority of slot machines out of legal businesses and into illegal speakeasies, the history of slots shows that the game continued to evolve. The Mills Novelty Company removed the bell from its slot machines in the 1930s, for instance, which is why many of the machines the company produced during this period are referred to as “Silent Bells.”

In the same decade, the Mills Novelty Company introduced the “double jackpot,” a revolutionary idea that gave players the chance to win a jackpot back-to-back. Remaining on the forefront, the Mills Novelty Company reworked the exterior of its slot machines, making them more colorful and ornate. Themed games, such as Lion Head, War Eagle and Roman Head, also began to emerge in the early 1930s.

Nevada Was the Only State

Here are some additional advances that led to the evolution of modern slot machines broken down by decade:

  • 1940s: Nevada was the only state to legalize gambling in 1931. As casinos were built in Las Vegas and the state’s population continued to swell in the 1940s, slot machines began to make their way into casinos. Infamous mobster and businessman, Bugsy Seigal, demonstrated the revenue-producing potential that slot machines had when he placed them in the Flamingo Hilton.

    Although casinos generally thought that slot machines would simply entertain women while their husbands and boyfriends played more conventional games such as Blackjack and Roulette, it did not take long for the revenue generated by slot games to rival the money casinos made from more traditional games.

  • 1950s: Slot machines created during this period began to accept larger amounts of coins, which increased potential payouts to winning players as well as the amount of money a casino could possibly make off of slot machines. Games such as Big Bertha and Super Big Bertha proved to be incredibly popular during the 1950s. With eight reels and 20 symbols on each drum, the odds of hitting a jackpot playing Big Bertha were only one in 25 billion.
  • 1960s: Originally founded by Raymond Moloney as the Bally Manufacturing Company in 1932, Bally Technologies pioneered change in the slot machine industry during this decade with the introduction of the first electro-mechanical slots game, Money Honey, in 1963.

    Additional innovations developed by Bally Technologies over the years include multi-coin and multi-line play. As a result of these and other changes, electro-mechanical slot machines soon replaced manual machines in casinos. By 1968, Bally Technologies held 94 percent of the slots game market in Las Vegas.

Bally Technologies
  • 1970s: Bally Technologies continued to spearhead change in the slots industry during the 1970s with the introduction of the dollar slot machine, random number generators and video screens. Bally Technologies enjoyed so much success that it became the first gaming company listed on the New York Stock Exchange in 1975.
  • 1980s: The history of slots includes the launch of computerized slot machines in the 1980s. During this decade, Sircoma was the first company to produce a video poker slot machine. Bally also launched video poker and video slot games during this time period.

    While people were initially skeptical of video poker and slot machines because they could not see the machines’ reels spin first-hand, video slot machines quickly became as popular as their predecessors. Slot machines also started to accept paper money, such as dollar bills, during the 1980s, which meant players no longer needed to carry rolls of coins with them or leave the machines to get change from the cashier. Naturally, this increased both the number of spins they could bet on during a playing session and the amount of money a casino could make off of its slot machines. Some slot machines began to offer bonuses as well, which gave people the chance to win even more money.

  • Today: According to some estimates, the money casinos make from slot machines equals approximately 70 percent of the United States’ total gaming revenue. Charles Fey’s grandson, Marshall Fey, estimates that more than 50 percent of Nevada’s casino revenue has been generated by slot machines since 1986.

    Today’s slot machines are responsible for a significant portion of a given casino’s revenue. Many machines have flashy lights and attention-grabbing sounds that continue to make them attractive to many modern-day gamblers. Now that players can bet more than one coin per spin in most cases, machines typically pay winnings that are often proportionate to the number of coins wagered. While there is n`o strategy that will actually increase your chances of winning while playing slots, betting the maximum number of coins possible will help you to win more money when you do hit a winning combination.

    Even though some slot machines still enable you to enjoy the nostalgia of playing slots by pulling a handle, you can initiate a spin on the vast majority of today’s machines with the simple push of a button.

US Gaming Revenue

Over the course of the history of slot machines, some machines have been given themes taken directly from popular culture. It is not unusual for a machine to have a them that is based on a television show such as “Wheel of Fortune,” “Deal or No Deal” or “Jeopardy,” for instance. Celebrities, including Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe, Michael Jackson and Andre the Giant, have also been the inspiration for certain slot games. Slot machines have been based on select movies such as “Forrest Gump,” “Star Trek” and Rocky as well.

At Dover Downs Hotel & Casino, we have more than 2,300 slot machines, including progressives. Because we do everything possible to exceed your expectations at Delaware’s premier hotel and casino destination, we have slot machines that work with a bankroll of any size, including penny machines and games that let you bet up to $25 per spin.

Whether you have been playing slots for years or you are stepping up to a one-armed bandit for the first time, we have a game you are sure to love. From the next-generation game, The Wizard of Oz, to Monopoly-themed video slots and more, we offer the latest games right alongside long-standing favorites.

When you want a break from playing slots, we invite you to try your hand at any of our 41 gaming tables or in our posh, 18-table poker room. Of course, we encourage you to take advantage of all of the other benefits that staying at our spectacular property provides as well, including live harness racing, gourmet dining, concerts, shows and our luxurious spa.

If you are ready to enjoy a hotel and casino experience you will never forget, book your next stay at Dover Downs Hotel & Casino today.