Americans are an inventive, resourceful people and although some may insist that the greatest thing ever invented on these shores was the airplane, the laser or perhaps even the humble potato chip, we know otherwise: the greatest American invention was slots!
Slots were founded at the end of the 19th century by a Brooklyn company, Sittman and Pitt. The first ever slot, so-called due to the slot on the machines where the coins or credits are inserted, was based on the game of poker and featured five drums, containing a total of 50 playing cards.
The machines usually cost a nickel to play and were operated by a mechanical lever on the side of the machine, leading to the nickname of “one-armed bandits”. Wins were paid according to traditional poker hands but as there were so many winning combinations, automated pay was not possible at that time and the attendant – usually a barman – would manually pay the win, be that in the form of a beer, a whisky, cigarettes or something else of that ilk.
Around the same time on the West Coast, Charles Fey, based in San Francisco devised a simpler machine that was more like the slots of today, or certainly those of the 20th century. He used three spinning reels and, rather than playing cards, used symbols – just five of them. The original symbols were diamonds, spades, hearts, a lucky horseshoe and the Liberty Bell, the latter of which gave the machine its name.
This machine had far fewer winning combinations and so automated pay became possible, with the biggest win being paid for landing three bells, a handsome (at the time) 50c! The Liberty Bell machine was hugely popular and in 1907 a Chicago firm, Herbert Mills, produced a similar machine, the Operator Bell.
These slots remained largely unchanged until the 1960s when Bally (originally a pinball company) developed the world’s first entirely electromechanical slot. Money Honey had a bottomless hopper and was able to make payments of up to 500 coins automatically, whilst the electromechanical design removed the need for a side lever, although many machines retained these as customers liked the physical act of pulling the lever.
Since then there have been many advancements and developments in the world of slots, with video slots and complex and involved games that are in some ways more like a video game than a slot. With progressive slots too, not to mention online and mobile slots, we’ve come a long way from the Brooklyn bars, and who knows where we’re headed next!