The very first “coin-in-the-slot” wheel mechanism was a game called “Horseshoes,” invented just before the end of the 19th century in San Francisco. The game featured 25 different symbols and paid out two nickels (10¢) whenever one of ten horseshoes appeared on a specially marked horizontal line.
Charles Fey, one of the inventors of this “slot machine,” retooled the device in 1898 by lining up three separate wheels side by side. Instead of horseshoe symbols, he displayed playing card suits and a cracked bell to trigger payouts anytime the spinning “reels” stopped and aligned in a winning combination. His invention was originally named the “Card Bell” and then the “Liberty Bell”—the forefather of all modern “slots.”
In the early 20th century, San Francisco became the center of a rapidly growing machine gaming industry, with some 3,200 slot games installed around the city. Their revenues were taxed to the tune of six figures a year and the machines spread to gambling halls all across the United States.
Unfortunately, San Francisco’s heyday as the country’s slot capital was short-lived. When anti-gambling legislation was passed in California in 1909, the base of slot machine production moved to Chicago. That’s where slot game manufacturer Herbert Mills replaced the existing reel symbols with oranges, cherries, plums and lemons—the various flavors of chewing gum used to pay winners. When exports of these machines reached England, they became known as “fruit machines.”
Throughout America’s Prohibition Era, slots continued to be popular in private clubs where gambling and bootleg liquor were available. The makers of the illegal machines operated publically as arcade game and vending machine businesses, and they formed the National Association of Coin Operated Machine Manufacturers.
By 1931, more than 25,000 illegal slot machines had been installed in New York City alone. That same year, Nevada legalized slots and other forms of gambling. Soon the small railroad town known as Las Vegas transformed itself into the slots capital of the world. One of the first Las Vegas manufacturers of slot games was Bally Gaming, and its first product—The Ballyhoo—allowed seven plays for just a penny.
Thirty years later, Bally’s machines dominated the market for slots. In 1964, they launched “Money Honey,” the first game to combine electric circuitry and mechanical play. Its loudly ringing bells would alert everyone when a jackpot was won. Later, Bally introduced the first computerized system for data control, which could prevent players from cheating the machines.
Bally ranked as the leading slot maker in the world by the 1970s, followed closely by Chicago-based WMS Gaming, a former pinball business that moved on to video lotteries and slots. In the 1990s, WMS created a series of multi-line, multi-coin secondary bonus video slots, including the still-popular “Reel ‘Em In” fishing-themed game as well as Jackpot Party, Boom and Filthy Rich.
Around the world, other game manufacturers began creating slots for markets in their own regions. Among them were Australia’s Aristocrat Slots founded in 1953, Konami Slots of Japan started in 1969 and Germany’s Atronic Slots, which was launched in 1993. Their exports soon started showing up in U.S. casinos, too.
Currently, the world’s leading slot maker is International Game Technology (IGT). Founded in the 1950s, the company began dominating the industry when it went public in 1981, introducing the “random number generator” (RNG) to slot play. This technology allowed electronics to take the place of mechanics, so that computers could be linked to video screens that would simulate spinning reels.
IGT’s was responsible for creating “Video Poker” as well as “Megabucks,” the world’s first progressive slot. Acquiring Electronic Data Technologies in 1984 helped IGT chalk up one more milestone in slot history, too—the computerized tracking of player activity that forms the basis of modern customer loyalty schemes.
All of these innovations culminated in the development of “virtual slots”—games played for profit over the Internet. Among the leading developers of online slots are Microgaming, RealTime Gaming (RTG) and Playtech, to name a few, as the history of slots continues to be written not only in land-based casinos but also in cyberspace.