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The Reel Games that Came Before the Slot Machine

Published on May 3, 2018, 7:06 am

by Jeff Grant Twitter account Jeff Grant LinkedIn account

Slot machines are the first successful mechanical casino games invented. These have been around for more than a century, first finding their way into pubs and bars, and later into casinos, ending up on the internet and becoming the most-played games of chance ever invented.

Their history is one of almost unbroken growth, thanks in part to their immersive and captivating nature and in a large part to their consistent bonuses and jackpots, with some of the best listed on sites like But before the slot machines started their glorious journey to conquer the gambling dens and hotel lobbies of the world, there were other machines with similar mechanics that were popular for quite some time.

Sittman & Pitt Flip Card Poker Machine
Sittman & Pitt Flip Card Poker Machine (Model made in 1894 by Samuel Nafew Co)

Early inventors (rudimental slot machines)

A years before Charles Fey built his first Liberty Bell slot machine, others have tried to build similar constructions - most of them inspired by one of the most popular poker games ever, Five Card Draw. The Ideal Toy Company in Chicago was the first to introduce such a machine. Built by Frank Smith in 1890, the poker machine had five drums with playing cards painted on them that could be spun by pulling a lever - but only after inserting a coin. If the reels stopped at a winning hand, an attendant paid out the winnings to the player.

Three years later, Sittman and Pitt from New York built a similar machine - it was recognized as the first coin-operated gambling machine and is largely viewed as the precursor to the one-armed bandit we all love today. And it was pretty popular around the bars of the United States. Another machine to predate Fey's slot machine was the "trade simulator". It was another very popular game, almost like a mix between a slot machine and a vending machine, to be found in many pubs and bars across America.

History of Slot Machines

Charles Fey, inventor of the 'Liberty Bell' Slot Machine
Charles Fey, inventor of the Liberty Bell Slot Machine

Unlike many card-based games common to casino gambling, slot machines have a well-documented history. While the origins of poker and gin are lost to time, slots trace their history to more recent technological advances. The first wave of slot machines arrived in bars and pubs at the turn of the nineteenth century; in the next generation of gaming online slot machines made it possible to forgo the casino entirely and play from home.

New York is the birthplace of the slot machine. In 1891, the Sittman and Pitt Company of New York developed a machine that had five reels, each of which contained images of playing cards. Players tried to build a poker hand with their spins. Although it was close to a true slot machine, it wasn't quite there yet. The machine cost a nickel a spin, but didn't pay off directly. Instead, winners had to ask casino workers for a pay-off directly. Nor were winnings as large as they are today; sometimes good luck only earned players a free beer.

It wasn't until four years later in 1895 when Charles Fey created his Liberty Bell machine slot, that became the hottest form of gaming at casinos. The Liberty Bell weighed in at over 100 pounds. Like the device from Pitt and Sittman, the machine had reels that spun as a player pulled the lever; unlike its predecessor, the Liberty Bell paid off instantly. The bell design was so popular that many modern slot machines still have bells on their reels to commemorate the first fully functional slot machine.

Basic functioning

A patron could insert a coin into the machine and pull a lever. The reels of the machine would spin, then stop at a random combination of symbols or cards - some were poker-inspired, like the above-mentioned poker machine, others gave out prizes like cigars and candy. The classic Vegas slot machines have the trade simulator to thank for some of their symbols. Trade simulators were used without restrictions even in times when gambling was strictly prohibited, considering that they didn't give out any money. Then the slot machine was built and things have changed fundamentally.

Fey's machine was a simpler design with just three reels instead of five, and a limited number of symbols that reduced the number of potential combinations of symbols on the reels. This allowed it to pay out wins automatically, without needing an intervention from an attendant. And this feature made it insanely popular, ultimately allowing it to break into Nevada's booming casino business and from there, the rest of the world.

One Armed Bandit Slot Machine

Gambling activities frequently take place in bricks and mortar casinos. However, there are many online or virtual casinos too. They are just as viable as a means of gambling as their bricks and mortar counterparts. They are also far more convenient, as gambling can be done online from the comfort of the home computer. Video lottery terminals are a kind of slot machine that connects to a central database or system.

Old one armed bandit slot machine
An old one armed bandit slot machine

It is a good way for a casino – whether virtual or not – to monitor winnings effectively. Although it is illegal in many territories to undermine the chances of a player if another player wins big while playing these games, there is certainly technology available to guarantee that a big win will be compensated for by the casino by undermining the chances of another big win.

This practice may be illegal in some countries and legal in others, so it may be worthwhile perusing the gambling laws of the country in which you gamble in order to ascertain the “rules” that pertain to slot machines and other gadgets that are used in gambling. Other technologies are available to ensure that all players have an equal chance of winning a limited amount of prize money.

The first slot machines came about before the 1900s. The first simple slot machines built to accommodate gamblers were in response to the complicated manner in which poker wins were made possible through so many permutations of hands, such as a royal flush or two pairs or a full house, and so on. Machines based on poker had already been devised but were regarded as quite complex. Inventor Charles Fey of California came up with the simpler concept of three spinning wheels, each of which contained five symbols, including symbols from cards such as diamonds, spades and hearts.

Slot machines or fruit machines can be used from the comfort of the home computer today, but their provenance stems from similar machines found in casinos. Originally they were pejoratively nicknamed One armed bandits because they were used by first inserting money and pulling a single lever at the side of the panel rather than by a button at the front of the machine. In keeping with tradition, many machines not only have buttons but the lever as well, even today. Currency is validated when it is inserted so as to guarantee that the coin is of the right value to play.

Modern Slot Machines (online slots)

The modern version of the slot machine resembles those early models only in the fundamentals. New technology such as random number generators, makes modern slots tamper-proof, while multipliers and special combinations have pushed potential pay-offs into the tens of thousands of dollars. They're a far cry from the free beer or handful of nickels that older machines paid. With larger payments come larger investments; while many casinos still operate nickel slots, quarter and dollar machines take up vastly more floor space.

Although technological advances improved slot machines incrementally, recently they got a complete makeover. Online gaming lets players enjoy games anytime from a comfortable computer chair. For casino gambling or virtual gaming online, slot machines are one of the most popular options. Whether they're virtual or real, slots are easy to understand, offer substantial payouts and have a high winning percentage.

Computer technology has enhanced the kind of play and interaction that such gambling machines allow. There is also sandbox technology and various other techniques through which software can be downloaded and launched securely in order to play.

For example, a sandbox or similar technology will operate on a client machine owned by the gambler and work independently from the other systems. This in order to mitigate the ability of a gambler to tamper with the service, and to protect against security breaches by hackers or the software developer or gambling company.


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