Today, everyone knows how slot machines work, and a lot of people love spending their free time playing these exciting games. These brightly-colored flashy machines dominate land-based casino floors and play a significant role in attracting customers. It might be surprising to hear, but slot machines actually generate between 65-80% of the revenue casinos make. This makes slot machines one of the most profitable games to play. But, what do we know about their origin and history? To better understand slot machines and how they have evolved over time, we need to take a look at their history, how the idea was coined, and which problems slot machines faced in the past, and how they overcame these obstacles.
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When we think about slot machines, we need to consider how similar their technology is to vending machines. The first vending machine is thought to have been created during the first century A.D. in Roman Egypt. Created by the Roman mathematician and engineer Hero of Alexandria, the purpose of these vending machines was very different from their modern one. These ancient vending machines were created to disperse a certain amount of holy water, so that town’s people didn’t take too much from the temple. The basic principle of operation of these machines was very similar to slot machines: people would drop coins into a slot, which then pushed down a bar to release the predetermined amount of holy water.
From this ancient creation, vending machines in the 17th century made their way into English pubs. In the early 1600s, a smaller version of the vending machine was created to dispense tobacco and snuff. This coin-operated mechanism would eventually evolve into automatic machines in the 20th century, on their way to become coin-operated gambling devices. These devices were placed in saloons and bars, but more as a novelty than an actual gambling device, since patrons could not bet or gamble on the device itself. Rather than that, these machines would attract wagering between customers. And thus, an idea was born.
Charles Fey and The Liberty Bell
In their modern sense, the first slot machines were invented by a Bavarian-born San Franciscan named Charles Fey back in the 1890s. Roughly around 1898, Mr. Fey built the first three-reel slot machine with automatic payouts. This machine got its name from the playing card suit marks that, when the handle was pushed down and the reels set in motion, would line up to form poker hands. Then, in 1899, Mr. Fey added two new symbols to his creation: the horseshoe and the Liberty Bell; and thus, the famous Liberty Bell slot machine was born.
The Liberty Bell was so popular among saloon patrons, that Fey’s competitors quickly got wind of it and started copying it. Unfortunately, this growth in popularity had a negative impact, since slot machines quickly got banned in San Francisco in 1909. To solve this problem, Fey and his competitors went back a few steps and reintroduced machines without coin slots.
Picking the fruits of one’s labor
With legal bans still in place in the early 1900s, slot machine engineers would devise a new method. This new idea was a simple one. If the card suits were a problem because of their connection with poker, different symbols would have to be placed. Allegedly first done by the Industry Novelty Company around 1909, fruit symbols were introduced in place of card suits. This was done in order to mask slot machines as chewing gum vending machines, and the fruits represented flavors.
Around 1916, the Mills Novelty Company invented the next big step in the history of slot machines: the jackpot. The machines were programmed in such a way that, if a certain combination of symbols was made, all the coins from the machine would be expelled. The popularity of slots would only continue to grow from this point, but their legal problems would continue. By the 1920s, even the fruit machines were banned in most of the United States.
In the late 1950s, a new trend had emerged following technological advancements brought on by the two great wars. By 1963, the first fully electromechanical slot machine was invented, and it was called “Honey Money”. These machines had many new payout schemes, such as automatic payouts of up to 500 coins, and 3- and 5-coin multipliers. Payouts were determined based on the number of coins inserted before the handle was pulled. It was these machines that would eventually loosen the strings of legal bans. By the end of World War 2, these new slot machines were being used on a global level. Governments got attracted by the potential tax revenue. France, for instance, finally permitted slot machines in casinos in 1988, putting an end to a 50-year ban.
Improvements in technology led to new types of slots to be created, so it comes as no surprise that by the 1990s, a new trend had started emerging.
Video slots and modern technology
Technically, the first video slot machine was developed back in 1976, more than a decade after the “Honey Money” machine. This machine was manufactured by a Las Vegas-based company and was first available in the Las Vegas Hilton Hotel. It was nothing like anyone had ever seen before, since it used a modified 19-inch Sony TV to display the spinning symbols. Because these new slots didn’t have reels, engineers would have to come up with a new way to determine the game’s outcome. The development of computer microchips and technology allowed a huge leap forward in the technological advancement of slot machines, since these new machines relied on new computer technology to randomly generate the game’s outcome. This technology was the prototype for the Random Number Generator technology we know today.
With the further evolution of computer technology, video slots became more and more advanced, reaching their current peak of online slot machines and VR/AR technology, with more advancement yet to come.