From one-armed bandits to sophisticated machines: The history of the slot machine

Slot machines are still some of the best-loved gaming platforms around. Land-based casinos continue to generate significant amounts of revenue from their slots. Statista revealed that the total yield from land-based casino players worldwide amounted to $450 billion in 2016. They still hold a special place in the hearts of those who remember the retro-style slot machines, including the one-armed bandits that characterized the slot for so many years. This article charts the evolution of the slot machine, from its infancy in 1887 to the sophisticated video slots we see today with high-definition visuals and audio.

The origins of the slot machine as we know it date back to the late 19th century. The first ever slot machine was built in 1887 in Brooklyn, New York by a duo named Sittman and Pitt. The machine featured 50 card faces and was based on poker. The five-drum machine cost a nickel to play, with pay-outs given to players who could line up matching poker hands on the reels—just like on a Texas Hold’em table. However, pay-outs weren’t in monetary form; winnings were paid out in the form of free cigars and beverages. The house edge was increased by removing the jack of hearts and the ten of spades, halving the possibility of locking in a Royal Flush and the maximum jackpot.

Although Charles Fey developed his first slot machine after Sittman and Pitt, it was Fey who would eventually manage to devise a slot machine capable of offering automatic pay-outs to players. To make it easy for the slot machine to acknowledge a winning spin, Fey changed the design of Sittman and Pitt’s initial device from five drums to three reels. The playing card symbols were swapped to display just five symbols: a liberty bell, spades, hearts, diamonds and horseshoes. Locking in three liberty bell symbols paid out the highest jackpot. Subsequently, the machine was tagged the ‘Liberty Bell’. Unfortunately for Fey, he did not choose to patent his machine, and it was eventually imitated by other slot machine designers.

In the States, slot machines were prohibited in 1902, with cash jackpots no longer permitted in bars up and down the country. That’s where fruit machines came into play. These slots were filled with sweets and chewing gum, paying out the corresponding flavours of the fruit symbols displayed on the machines. Until 1964, slots and fruit machines remained entirely mechanical. In the mid-60s, Bally’s unveiled an electromechanical slot that only needed one pull of the lever to be played continuously. But it was in 1976 when Las Vegas-based firm Fortune Coin would change the way slot machines were played forever. They developed the world’s inaugural video slot, displayed on a 19-inch Sony television screen. It was installed at the Las Vegas Hilton resort and soon became popular elsewhere along the ‘Desert Strip’.

Twenty years later, the first video slot was developed to display an entirely different screen for its bonus rounds. ‘Reel ‘Em’ became a very popular video slot for its immersive nature, paving the way for the state-of-the-art features we enjoy today. With five-reel online slots now the norm, as well as unconventional layouts and an immense choice of themed games (from TV shows and movie franchises to professional sports stars), video slots are here to stay.

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