When you see row upon row of brightly lit slot machines lined up on casino floors, in locations as far apart as Las Vegas, Melbourne and Macau, it’s easy to forget this phenomenally successful gaming device had such humble beginnings.
The Liberty Bell
Back in the 1890s, there had already been some attempts at mechanized gaming machines. One machine, devised by Sittman and Pitt of Brooklyn, New York, featured five drums with playing cards attached, activated by a lever. Popular in bars and taverns, payouts consisted of free beers and cigars, although establishments could easily tamper with the machines by removing cards from the drums, thus reducing the payout chances.
Meanwhile, over in California, Charles Fey of San Francisco is credited with creating the very first true slot machine. The key to the success of his concept was its simplicity, using just three reels and a total of five symbols. These were horseshoes, diamonds, spades, hearts and the “Liberty Bell” icon that lent this first truly mechanized slot game its name.
The “Liberty Bell” slot machine quickly became popular throughout the USA by the turn of the 20th century, as the first such gaming device to also feature an automated payout mechanism, which made it a resident fixture around the country in bars and tobacco stores, or even in brothels and barber shops.
Unfortunately, Fey was unable to patent his machine in California because gambling was prohibited in the West Coast state at the time, but other companies quickly jumped on the idea, copying and improving upon his original concept. That original idea remains prominent in the modern slots and “fruit machines” we know so well today.
Few of the original "Liberty Bell" machines remain, although an 1899 version is part of a dedicated Nevada State Museum Fey Collection, while others have been displayed at exhibitions in his home city of San Francisco.
Mechanical slot machines had already become electronic by the late 20th century, as video screens replaced the mechanical need for physical spinning reels. As we entered into the digital age with the internet and high-speed mobile communications, slots have also been ushered into a new era.The rise in popularity of online betting and gaming has become an international phenomenon, generating global revenues in the hundreds of billions of dollars. A large chunk of that revenue for online gaming companies can be accounted for by slot games, although they have also evolved in ways that good old Charles Fey couldn’t have possibly dreamed of when he came up with his novel and original concept over 120 years ago.
One only needs to look at the hundreds of games and promotions at Aspers for an idea of how slots have evolved, taking the basic concept to a whole new level. These days there are slots games themed around popular movies and TV shows, celebrities and sporting stars, or even historical figures such as Cleopatra or Spartacus.
Compared to the 50 cents jackpot back in the days of Fey’s “Liberty Bell” machine, modern online slots can often pay prizes in the thousands of dollars, or even in the millions for some lucky winning players of progressive jackpot slots such as Mega Moolah by UK developer Microgaming.
The Basic Concept Lives on
The large majority of online slots have five reels and multiple pay-lines, making games more exciting and offering the possibility of additional prizes and bonus features. Nevertheless, there are still many games that fondly tip their hat to Fey’s original machine, featuring that iconic Liberty Bell or horseshoes, spades or diamonds, and they’re still entertaining people around the world in just the same way. Above and beyond anything else, they have always been about having fun.