Slot Machine History: From Land-Based to Online Casino Slots
It would be quite a challenge to find someone (a grown adult) who does not know what slot machines are – these things are probably one of the first things to come to mind when you hear the word ’casino’, or you might associate spinning reels with a night at the pub. Either way, it’s safe to say that slots have solidified their status as the go-to entry level gambling apparatus. They are not only found in many land-based establishments, but, of course, in countless online casinos. In fact, there are some slots-only casinos out there, where you can spin to your heart’s content. So how did slots become the poster child for gambling?
On this page, we’ll answer exactly that question and give you a run through of slot machine history, which will make you see these shiny spinning reels in a new light. From the early slot machines, through the developments in mechanics and technology, we’ve got it all covered – all the way up to the present-day deluge of cutting-edge online slots. We’ll put the spotlight on some defining milestones and curiosities in slots history as well, so stay tuned for the exhaustive slots profile!
The Origin of Slots: The Early Days
If you decide to undergo the quest for the first slot machine ever on your own, you may stumble upon some digressing opinions of the origin of slots. In fact, not even slots experts like us can agree on this. Nevertheless, it’s probably not something that will keep you up at night, so let’s just start off by pointing out that the poker machine and the Liberty Bell are both the predecessors of the modern slot mechanism.
Whether it was one or the other machine that came first, the decades that ensued witnessed an impressive evolution within the history of slots. From simple machines, through mechanical and electronic sophistication, all the way to the captivating software games, the technological advancements and the trends within the industry propelled these games forward. At the same time, changes in the legality, casino regulations, and social attitudes towards gambling have enabled slots to flourish in more ways than conceivable at their humble beginnings. Gone are the days of winning a gum packet or a bottle of soda as a payout! These days, huge payouts and even sky-high progressive jackpots are allowed in many jurisdictions where gambling regulation safeguards the industry.
1881 – Sittman & Pitt
The aforementioned poker machine, one of the fundamental pieces of pub entertainment, started making its rounds in the late 1800’s. It was introduced by the Brooklyn duo Sittman and Pit and had five drums. The symbols on the drums held 50 card faces, with the ideal outcome being getting a winning hand. For just a nickel, you could try your hand at spinning the drums and landing one of the bigger wins: a free beer, cigars or some other payout offered by the establishment you were playing at. The caveat with poker machines was that the concept of fairness was a bit more malleable back then – owners could move the drums around and manipulate the machine to make it a bit harder for the players to win.
1887 -1895 – The Liberty Bell
The Liberty Bell was brought to the masses by Charles Fey in 1887 and featured five symbols on a three-reel layout: the Liberty Bell, heart, diamond space and horseshoe. The somewhat simplified setup enabled players to grasp the concept quicker and set the gameplay apart from the world of card games. The San Francisco-based innovator wasted no time getting these machines out – in just a few years, the Liberty Bell became wildly popular, becoming the cash cow for Fey’s manufacturing business. The demand was so high that other people, later on, jumped on the bandwagon with their own versions.
1880s – 1930s – Trade Stimulator
Since there was, at the time, a lack of gambling-friendly legislation, games like Liberty Bell and the poker machine had to make adjustments in terms of payouts. After all, many early US states saw gambling as an unvirtuous habit, combined with the fact that bar proprietors probably weren’t super keen to pay out food or drink tokens. In came the Trade Stimulator machine, which set the scene for slots that would pay out wins in gum. This is a lot less exciting than getting a free beer or a few smokes, but, at the same time, we have to give the makers of this machine credit for setting the precedent for classic slot games for decades to come: the ubiquitous bell, cherry and bar symbols originate exactly here.
1907 – Operator Bell
The aforementioned boom of the Liberty Bell machine enabled companies around the United States to pitch their own ideas and try them out on the market that was already responding well to the three-reeled slots machine. By the early 1900s, various bell-based machines could be found across pubs, barber shops and brothers around the country, including one called the Operator Bell. Produced by Chicago’s Herbert Mills, this machine also featured the fruit symbols inspired by the Bell-Fruit gum company. With a better fitting coin slot and, later on, lighter wooden cabinets, this machine had spread like wildfire, setting around 30,000 pieces. Later iterations of this machine have introduced a more quiet mechanism, improving the player experience and getting the fitting name of ’Silent Bell’.
1940 – High Hand
In the quest to improve the early slot machines and integrate the technological advancements at the time into the gameplay, manufacturers have turned to electromechanical engineering. The High Hand machine by the Bally Manufacturing Company – our of Chicago, Illinois – was the precursor of this movement. It had a larger body, enabling it to function as a standalone machine, as opposed to the mechanical machines which would normally be placed on a countertop. It also featured several basic electromechanical functions such as lights, movement of the drums and the ability to select the reels you wanted to spin – for instance, if you were one card short of a winning hand.
Hitting the Heyday of Slots History
The initial boom of slot machines had demonstrated that the slot machine was here to stay. By the mid-20th century, the industry has ushered in several big-name brands, whose machine-producing prowess brought entertainment to millions of demanding players. Companies like Bally Manufacturing, Mills Novelty Company, Jennings & Company, or Caille Bros. have become household names stateside, gaining traction not only in local establishments but also in giant gambling hubs which were sprouting across the continent
In fact, the golden age of casinos brought in a massive expansion of these machines. Take, for example, the rapid boom of Las Vegas in the 1940s and 1950s – a mere highway crossing going on to become the largest gambling and entertainment centre for Hollywood hotshots and regular folks alike. The glamour of casinos has lured millions of people to cities like Vegas or New Orleans, and slots became an unmissable part of the setup. Casinos overseas also caught wind of the latest money-makers and started integrating slot machines into their operations to broaden their appeal and, inevitably, client base.
After the introduction of the High Hand, suppliers saw the opportunity to bring out electronic and electromechanical gambling machines which would ease the gameplay and improve the player experience, and eliminate some costly factors from the equation. The ability to store the coins and automise payouts would reduce the need to hire an attendant, and the smoother functionalities would increase the ease of playing while also upping the entertainment factor with lights, sounds and, jingles.
1963 – Money Honey
Bally’s Money Honey slot perfected what the High Hand had started. This machine featured motor-powered reels, and the handle was a lot easier to pull than in its precursors. The payout coins were stored in tubes inside the machine and released automatically when a win happened. An electric hopper was used for coin counting, enabling the machine to count up to previously unforeseen quantities. The possibility of impressive wins surely captured the hearts and wallets of players, while casinos were happy to have a machine which would eliminate the need for additional staff. At nearly 200 pounds (roughly 90 kg), the Money Honey was a sizeable investment, which nevertheless proved massively successful.
1979 – The First Video Slot
The post-war technological research and boom has, of course, reached gambling as well. As a result, slot machine interfaces no longer had to be restrained by electromechanical movement, instead of moving on to more attractive and more impressive video projection. By the mid-1970s, Fortune Coin Company put out a slot machine that featured a 48 cm-wide Sony display and a fully electronic dashboard. The implementation of this slot machine into the market required calibrating it for fairness, introducing the random number generation concept which would become the must-have software solution for decades to come. After being approved by the Nevada State Gaming Commission, this mother of video slots proved successful after testing and enabled the Fortune Coin Co. to sell the technology to the world-famous International Gaming Technology (IGT).
1994 – Three Bags Full: The First ‘Second Screen’ Bonus Round Slot
The final decade of the 20th century has solidified slot games’ status as a must-have in any casino and nearly any pub, worldwide. And with such as high popularity index and technical opportunities to spice up the gameplay, manufacturers were keen to find new ways to motivate the player to literally throw their money at them. That’s why WMS Industries developed jumped on a concept spotted in Australia – a dual-screen slot machine. In fact, the Three Bags Full game had been making rounds around Australia from 1994, featuring a display which would switch between the base game and a bonus game where the players could win additional payouts. WMS, a Nevada-based manufacturer, then came out with Reel ’Em In, which caught on quickly in gambling halls around the country. The online casino revolution followed suit – the first casino, Microgaming, arrived at the scene as early as 1994.
Jackpot Networked Machines
Not much time passed between the introduction of the first online casino and the exponential boom of online gambling sites. Gambling sites, many of which made it to our best online casinos list, started flourishing in the late 1990s and early 2000s, perfecting the formula of video slots into what we know the genre as today. Additionally, the lure of online slots became nearly irresistible: favourable gambling legislation in various jurisdictions worldwide, including the UK, enabled online reels to multiply in number and offer even more attractive payouts to lucky winners. The concept of progressive jackpots caught on. With the growing software and connectivity improvements, providers could link users in real-time and create a common jackpot pool which would grow with each wager, no matter from where in the world it is placed. With this step, progressive slots like Mega Moolah or Mega Fortune arrived at the scene. These millionaire-makers have come a long way since the era of gum-dispensing one-armed bandits, becoming the poster children of online reels and changing the face of online slot machine history for good.
It’s safe to say that we’re living in the golden age of online slots: the rapid technological growth has spawned new approaches to video slots as our gadgets started getting more and more sophisticated. The one-upmanship within the gaming community has fueled innovation and continues to do so as we write this. Look no further than Gonzo’s Quest or Starburst for examples of what online slot technology can do in the 21st century. The industry has come to be dominated by a handful of mega-successful developers like NetEnt or Playtech, while smaller software companies like NextGen or Dragonfish also round up the rich online game catalogue.
At the same time, the fast growth of the market brought in some bad apples. Online casino scams and shady gambling sites found a window of opportunity among the masses of gambling spots. Lack of transparency is a persistent issue in some markets, while fairness concerns mar others. Stick with to our recommended and reviewed casinos and you’ll be golden.
Not to be left behind, the movie industry also wedged its way into gambling. Blockbuster movie-inspired reels and franchise slots are great examples of this symbiotic relationship. For instance, DC Comics Universe now comes to life with a series of both retro and modern reels, and stumbling upon movie or TV-based reels like Game of Thrones or Psycho is not rare.
Playtech is known for their tendency to go the movie or TV franchise route. However, NetEnt has been known to crank out music-inspired lines of slots, and Microgaming has a few pop culture-related products of their own.
Mobile slots belong to the group of gambling products that define this era: they are optimised to be used on pretty much any modern smartphone or tablet and offer a convenient way to play. Nowadays it’s no longer about making your desktop-optimised slots formatted for handheld devices; providers these days think of mobile gaming first and foremost, knowing well that the future of connectivity is portable. Apart from the portability, these games make the most of your screen space and offer easy ways to navigate between game commands. On the downside, you’ve got to be vigilant about how much data you let mobile games consume when you’re out and about.
Yet another new step in slot machine history, these games use advanced graphics and animation to create 3D-like effects on your screen, whether with short in-game movies, or game character gliding in front or on the side of the reels. The sky’s the limit here! Check out Jungle Jim El Dorado or Jack and the Beanstalk for some superb examples for a fantasy come to life.
What Ever Next? It’s All About Slots in VR
It’s hard to predict where the industry will take us next. But, if the current developments are any indication, virtual reality is poised as the next step in gambling. Some providers already have several VR products on the market, though they haven’t breached the land of slots yet. But who’s to say?
Another direction could be diversification of reels and application of a ‘gamified’ concept which mimics video games. Modern retro reels are also a growing sub-genre, with an emulation of old-school one-armed bandits combined with ultra-modern special features. And when it comes to land-based slots, some may be concerned that these are struggling with keeping up with the online products. Nevertheless, slot terminals are getting more sophisticated as well. It’s no longer one game per terminal – instead, you can browse through long lists of games in a catalogue without changing your seat, and you also don’t have to sacrifice your wish to play progressive slots – land-based ones are also often linked with online pools.
We’ve already mentioned that online gaming is no stranger to controversies, scams and lack of transparency, and this also plagues the slot industry. Additionally, the marketing side of gambling is still bogged down by restrictive laws and regulations, thanks to the risky nature of gambling in general. As a result, there has been a number of critical situations.
Developers and casinos have, in the meantime, found ways to navigate around many inconvenient developments while still being able to push their products. Take, for instance, the restrictions applied by the Google Play Store which, up until recently, didn’t allow any gambling apps on the platform. Casinos have simply bypassed this limitation by offering Android downloads directly from their websites.
History of Slots: Wrap-Up
Slots, whether online or offline, are an ever-evolving market that shows no signs of stopping. The convenience of spinning the reels is just too high for people to start abandoning the concept, and the multitude of themes and ideas provides ample entertainment to even the most high-maintenance of gamblers. You can explore this rich world in our rundown of different slots categories to find one that’s right up your alley or get our top slots casino recommendations in our general introduction.