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Machines and Milestones

The origin of slot machines and other amusements

Machines and Milestones

The other day, I was reading the blog, which bills itself as the “World’s Online Gaming Authority Since 1995.” I noticed an article by David Sheldon, one of the site’s regular contributors, that wasn’t about online gaming at all, but slot machines. The piece was called “10 Slots That Changed Gambling Forever.”

Since I have been known to have some knowledge on this subject—I wrote a book on it, in fact, which was read by tens of people—I decided to fact-check Mr. Sheldon.

Now, I would never criticize a fellow gaming writer. We’re union brothers, after all (Amalgamated Brotherhood of Gaming Writers, AFL/CIO/LSMFT). Sheldon’s list is as valid as any other, but I do have a few snarky comments. (Snarky is part of my union contract.)

The Stittman and Pitt Gambling Machine, invented in 1891, is listed as the first slot machine ever invented. This was a bar-top mechanical poker machine with a 50-card deck (hey, house edge, you know?) that usually paid out in cigars or drinks.

The ones that paid out in drinks were great for barkeepers, because the luckier someone got, the more likely he would pass out before he got paid, and wake up not remembering if he got paid, or what he was supposed to get paid for.

Anyway, Sheldon writes that these were the first slot machines, but there were other gambling machines in those bars, which were mainly in San Francisco. They were ornate pieces of furniture with a big wheel and a handle you would crank—sort of a primal Wheel of Fortune.

So you had Wheel of Fortune and Jacks or Better poker with two cards missing. How could you lose?

But I don’t consider the poker machine the first slot machine ever invented. I would argue that it is the next item on Sheldon’s list—the Liberty Bell, developed by San Francisco inventor Charles Fey in the 1890s, and introduced publicly in 1899. This was a three-reel mechanical slot machine with bells and fruit symbols, which established the model for a slot machine that would be used for the next century. It was also the first to be called a “slot machine,” short for “nickel-in-the-slot machine.”

Fey was part of San Francisco’s German immigrant community, and he called it “Liberty Bell” as a nod to his adopted country. (Plus, it was better than his wife’s suggestion, the “Bet Five Nickels to Win Two Nickels Machine.”) He built the thing in his garage, and probably had no idea of the mammoth impact his invention was to have on the 20th century casino industry. (Especially since he was trying to build a toaster.)

No. 3 on Sheldon’s list (isn’t that a movie?) is Bally’s Money Honey from 1963, the first slot machine to be all lit up with dings and bells and whistles. No argument here.

The others on the list are valid enough, from WMS’ Reel ‘Em In to IGT’s Cleopatra to the arrival of games licensed from the world of video games. I would have put those old Aristocrat multi-line games in there, though. Before those hit Atlantic City in the mid 1990s, slot floors all looked the same—a sea of three-reel, single-line machines, the players of which could have been mistaken for factory workers. (I think they even punched a time clock.)

The Aristocrat games were the first multi-line Australian games to appear in the U.S., and players were almost mesmerized because it was something… different. WMS introduced the concept to Nevada with Reel ‘Em In, as well as injecting a lot of humor into the deal, but Aristocrat deserves mention in the changing-gambling-forever category.

Other than that, the glaring omissions include Wheel of Fortune and Double Diamond.

How can you say Wheel of Fortune did not change gambling forever, but Sushi Bar and Jack and the Beanstalk VR did? I think the latter game was introduced, like, yesterday, so “changing gambling forever” is more like a prophecy than an opinion.

Not that I’m criticizing. Union brother, remember?

The writer did a good overall job early in his list, and while I disagree that those bar-top pokers were the first slot machines, that’s pretty much semantics. They did start the whole slot-gambling thing, as proven by this actual quote from 1890s San Francisco, which I made up:

Husband: “Honey, I hit four sevens! That’s worth of nickels!”

Wife: “But dear, you’ve gone through at least $5 since we got here.”

Husband: “Who cares? Look at that pile of nickels! I’m rich!”

At that point, a business model was established that survives to this day.

Frank Legato is editor of Global Gaming Business magazine. He has been writing on gaming topics since 1984, when he launched and served as editor of Casino Gaming magazine. Legato, a nationally recognized expert on slot machines, has served as editor and reporter for a variety of gaming publications, including Public Gaming, IGWB, Casino Journal, Casino Player, Strictly Slots and Atlantic City Insider. He has an B.A. in journalism and an M.A. in communications from Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, PA. He is the author of the books, How To Win Millions Playing Slot Machines... Or Lose Trying, and Atlantic City: In Living Color.