The History of Slot Machines

The development and advancement of slot machine technology started over 125 years ago. If you’ve done any research into early slot machines, you’ve probably heard of Charles Fey and / or the Mills Company.

While they do have important spots in slot machine history, the story doesn’t start with either of them.

Instead it starts with two men in New York.

Sittman and Pitt

The first reported gambling game that could be considered a type of slot machine was introduced in 1891. Developed by a New York company named Sittman and Pitt, this machine was based on the game of poker.

The machine had five drums (or reels) that each held 10 playing cards. Each spin cost a nickel. Players tried to line up winning combinations in return for prizes.

To reduce the chances of players hitting a royal flush, two cards were removed from the standard deck of cards. The jack of hearts and ten of spades were usually removed, leaving the 50 cards to be placed on the reels. Players couldn’t get a royal flush in hearts or spades with these two cards removed, effectively reducing the chances of a royal flush by half.

Machine owners could also arrange the cards to reduce the player’s chances of winning even further. If the ace of clubs and queen of clubs were placed on the same reel (or drum) it made the only remaining possible royal flush available in diamonds.

There were no set payouts or a standard pay chart for the Sittman and Pitt machine. The machines were bought by bar owners and each owner set the prizes. Most of the prizes were for free drinks or cigars, but they could be anything that the bar owner wanted to offer.

The main reason these early slot machines were kept on the bar was because the bar keeper or owner had to be able to see the winning combinations in order to pay out the prizes.

These machines proved to be wildly profitable. By adding a game of chance giving away prizes that had a higher perceived value than they cost, the owners found a way to increase their nightly income.

If drinks or cigars were selling for 10 cents each, the owner had 5 cents or less in them. These basic retail concepts are still in place in the retail industry today. The patrons of the bar had a chance to win free drinks or cigars, but the owner really couldn’t lose unless he set the prize amounts too high.

For example, if the payout for a pair was a free drink that cost the bar owner 5 cents, even if the player hit a pair on their first spin, the bar owner broke even. It was the same as the player paying 5 cents for a drink. It’s also simple mathematics that you’d have to spin many times on average to win a prize, just like on modern slot machines.

Larger winning combinations paid out larger prizes, but they were also hit with less frequency. A royal flush may pay out a box of cigars or a number of free drinks, but the owner collected more than enough in profit to cover all of the expenses and still have a hefty profit. The same concept is in use on today’s slot machines.

The biggest problem with this type of machine was the inability to tie a standard pay table to the possible outcomes. You could develop a pay table, but it was large and it couldn’t be designed to make automatic pay outs. This problem wasn’t really solved for poker based machine until the 1970s, when computers started being used for video poker machines.

Charles Fey

Charles Fey solved this problem in the late 1800s. He’s often credited as the father of modern slot machines. The dates claimed for Fey’s first machine range from the late 1880s to 1899, but most historical research supports a date closer to 1899 than 1891--when Sittman and Pitt’s machine was introduced.

Fey called his machine the Liberty Bell. It only used three reels and five symbols. This reduced the possible winning combinations and made an automatic payout system possible.

The five symbols used on the Liberty Bell were:

  1. A Liberty Bell
  2. Hearts
  3. Diamonds
  4. Spades
  5. Horseshoes

The highest payout when the game was introduced was 50 cents for lining up three Liberty Bells on the pay line.

The popularity of early slot machines exploded with the introduction of Fey’s machine. They were quickly copied by other manufacturers and found all across the country.

Common locations (other than bars) for early slot machines included brothels, cigar stores, barber shops, and bowling alleys.

But you might have found them anywhere people tended to gather.

Another well-known early slot machine manufacturer was Herbert Mills, located in Chicago. His first machine was launched in 1907 and was based on Fey’s design. Mill’s first machine was called the Operator Bell.

The entire first generation of slot machines including Feys and Mills designs were called “Bell” machines. These original machines are highly collectable. Working models can be quite valuable.

Following the Bell machines were the fruit slot machines and the gum machines. Fruit machines used fruits like lemons and cherries for their symbols. You can still find fruit based slot machines in use today.

Another early slot machine manufacturer, the Bell Fruit Gum company, is responsible for the slot machine symbols still in use today. They are credited with being the first company to use the classic bar symbols on a slot machine. Today you can see single bars, double bars, and triple bars on most classic style games.

The gum machines had popular chewing gum flavors for symbols. Some of these machines actually paid out packages of gum for prizes.

Gambling laws started going into effect around the country. These new laws limited the number of places where slot machines could be used. This also spurred the developers of slots to innovate.

Instead of offering winnings in money, machines were designed to offer food and other prizes that weren’t illegal. This created a legal race in many jurisdictions. Slot machine companies tried to stay ahead of the laws that were being put into place to make the use of the machines illegal.

Electromechanical Slot Machines

Bally Gaming introduced the Money Honey slot machine game in 1962. The importance of this machine was the ability to automatically pay out up to 500 coins without an attendant, and it was the first fully electromechanical slot machine. Slot machines that had some electromechanical features were manufactured as early as 1940, but the Money Honey slot machines were the first that achieved 100% electromechanical ability.

Video Slot Machines

Fortune Coin Company (which was later absorbed by the gambling giant IGT) manufactured the first video slot machine in 1976. This was the birth of today’s slot machines, which combine video screens and computer chips.

Early machines didn’t have enough places on the reels to offer large jackpots and still maintain a profitable game for the owners. You just couldn’t fit enough symbols on the reels or make the reels big enough in order to offer large payouts.

When computers started being used in conjunction with video displays, the manufacturers no longer had to worry about the size of the reels. They could have as many stops, as many reels, and as many symbols as they wanted. All they had to do was design the computer program to pay out a certain percentage of the money put into the machine and work backwards to design the winning combinations.

For example, if the manufacturer wanted a top payout of $100,000, they knew how to determine mathematically how to make that possible. The top winning combination might only be hit on average once out of every million spins, but they could advertise the possibility of a high payout.

Many players want the chance to win life-changing amounts. The ability to advertise these large possible payouts increased the number of players feeding their money into the slot machines.

When the larger winning combinations became possible, it helped fuel the explosion in popularity of slot machines.

The secret with most slot machines is finding the balance between high possible pay outs and letting the average player hit small wins often enough to make them keep playing. If players don’t hit small wins often enough while trying to hit a big win, they may lose interest and play something else. Finding the happy medium has been a problem and will continue to be a problem for slot machine manufacturers.

While there are thousands of different slot machines available in local casinos and on the Internet today with all kinds of different themes and in game features, the last big game concept was introduced in the 1990s.

Most of the current special features and extra game bonuses are launched on a secondary screen on the slot machine. This was first used in 1994 on a slot machine called Three Bags Full. It was introduced in the United States in 1996 on a WMS Industries game called Reel Em In.

Today you can find slot machines that have story lines and in game video from movies or television shows. These features make for new and interesting games. But all of these are basically using the second screen technology developed in the 1990s.


I’ve always found old slot machines and their history to be amazing. Seeing one of the old machines and thinking about the men who came up with the ideas and followed through with their dreams fascinates me.

Machines from over 100 years ago and the fancy video slots we have today may seem like they have nothing in common, but if you look closer you can still see things in use today that were being used at the beginning.

Even though the reels we see today are almost always a picture on a video screen, they’re still based on the drums in the first machines. You can still find symbols used today that were used on machines more than 100 years ago.

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