The Birth and Growth of The Slot Machine

Written by Chris Baxter
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‘One armed bandits wink an eye at Piccadilly to greet the Saturday Night results’ – Ian Page – Secret Affair September 1978

A gleaming silver coin is thrust forcefully down the slot of the machine as the large mechanical metal lever is pulled down with aggression. Three multicoloured drums start to reel rapidly giving the player hope as well as worry. In the background and to his side, the player hears a large bell ringing followed by the sound of coins splattering into a tray. ‘Someone is lucky tonight’, he whispers to himself gazing above at the bright neon light and mirrored ceiling in a smoke-filled arcade as he waits nervously for the drums to finally come to a halt, hoping that he is lucky tonight…

The above is certainly a romantic account of the one-armed bandits that were so predominant in the amusement arcades of yesteryear in the UK and across the world. A machine with a fascinating history, from the sinister One-Armed Bandit murder in the north east of England in 1967 to the birth of the first ever slot machine, created by two entrepreneurs from New York, Sittman and Pitt in 1891. These men created a solo player poker machine that embraced the chic growing and accepted the culture of playing poker, as it was seen as a leisure activity of gentlemen not vagabonds.

Sittman and Pitt’s Poker Slot Machine

Sittman and Pitt’s ingenious little gem is certainly a forerunner for today’s slot games, physical and online. Their machines had 5 drums, within the drums there were a total of 50 playing cards. For the lover of poker who was yearning for a game yet unable to find one, he or she would compensate their desire by putting a nickel in the slot, press the plunger down at the front of the machine which allowed the deck of cards to spin. Moreover, if the punter was lucky with a flush, then they would receive a token which they would take to the bartender in exchange for a drink on the house or a cheap cigar, as Sittman and Pitt’s slot machines were located only in bars within the vicinity of New York. Yet to get a royal flush the punter only had half a chance, as the cunning Sittman and Pitt removed the ten of spades and the jack of hearts, favouring the House, of course.

As Sittman and Pitt were creating a storm with their 5-drum poker machine, Charles August Fey was creating the true first one-armed bandit. Fey was born in Bavaria Germany 9th September 1862 before settling in San Francisco in 1885 by finding employment at Western Electric, an American electrical engineering and manufacturing company, before setting up on his own. Where he, along with business partners, Theodore Holtz and Gustav Friedrich Wilhelm Schultz, created a machine with three drums instead of five, and replaced the deck of cards with symbols, Hearts, Diamonds, Spades, Horseshoes and the "Liberty Bell", which was the name of his most famous, and at the time, most popular slot machine. A metal lever was placed by the side of the machine, removing Sittman and Pitt’s plunger, furthermore instead of tokens, these machines paid out in cash. So, the one-armed bandit was born in the USA by a clever and resourceful German

He and his partners wasted no time installing their one-armed bandits in the bars, shops and game rooms of San Francisco. Due to Californian law in the 19th Century, where gambling was illegal, certain premises in this State were willing to chance their luck but Fey was unfortunately unable to patent his unique and inventive design, so sadly for him competitors could copy it. If Charles Augustus Fey could have had total ownership he would have certainly been the Bill Gates of the Slot Machines and his family today would be extraordinarily wealthy.

Charles August Fey’s Liberty Bell

With many States in the USA banning poker machines in 1902, the manufacturers of slot machines, including Fey, decided to change the look and rewards, so the machines would be seen as something of a fun activity, not gambling. So, the manufacturers replaced the traditional symbols from a deck of cards with new ones, with fruit being the most popular, hence the term we still hear to this day, ‘fruit machines’. In addition, instead of cash payouts, the manufacturers went back to Sittman and Pitt’s tokens, this time either chewing gum or sweets that matched the winning drum. No law was going to stop the growth of the slot machines. The ban was lifted in 1908

Slot Games have overcome legal setbacks as well as moving with the times in terms of trends and technology.

In 1964, as Beatlemania was spreading across the world, the first fully electromechanical slot machine called Money Honey, manufactured by Bally, was released, fitting in with the brave new world of the 1960s. Then a decade later in 1978, a Las Vegas-based company Fortune Coin released the first video slot machine at the Las Vegas Hilton Hotel.

And today, 2019, slot machines are still as popular as ever, either physical or online. No one will argue that the internet is not now part of everyday life, and history shows that slot machine manufacturers and creators are very much of the now. Moreover, these days the creators are usually part of an IT and design team within a gaming company, where the customer can enjoy the pleasure of a slot machine on their laptop, tablet or smartphone, with the virtual one-armed bandit still winking…….

Read 3074 times Last modified on Thursday, 11 July 2019 09:23
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Chris Baxter

Chris Baxter

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