Slot machines are a universally-recognized symbol for gambling; so much so that you could literally look at the machine itself and immediately identify it with the pastime of gambling. Slot machine are also probably one of the most popular gambling-related collectibles people have in their homes.
The machine, of course, represents a casino game that is so popular that it is arguably the most valuable to casino operators, at least those in the brick and mortar part of the industry. It’s not just a game, but, as it has evolved over the years, it has in its own way become, like poker (and before it) a cultural phenomenon.
So how did the slot machine come to be, and how did it get so unbelievably popular?
Sittman and Pitt of Brooklyn, New York developed a machine in 1891 that contained five “drums” with fifty card faces. It was sort of a five-card stud game; at the end of play the best poker hand won. The devices were popular in bars and restaurants around New York City, and prizes were given out to winners on an arbitrary basis by the proprietors of these establishments because no money was paid out of the machine. Some called this the precursor to the slot machine, but in reality it was more like the precursor to the video poker machine that would come almost a century later.
The city of origin for what we know today as the slot machine was San Francisco. Its inventor was Charles Fey, a mechanic who worked on developing the machine in his shop. Reports of the date are a bit sketchy and conflict somewhat; some have said 1894, others have given the year as 1895 or even 1897. But supposedly the San Francisco Chronicle documented a demonstration Fey made for his new machine back in 1887.
The term “slot machine” was used for the device, and this may have brought a little bit of confusion, since that was also the word used for an automated vending machine; you know, the one that dispensed candy or cigarettes. After a while, however, the gaming devices grabbed the name all to themselves.
But not originally.
The three-reel slot machine was originated by Fey. Each of these reels had ten different symbols on them – these symbols included spades, diamonds and hearts that were derived from card decks, in addition to horseshoes and bells. On each of the reels was a cracked Liberty Bell symbol. It was because of this reason that the machine was called the “Liberty Bell” machine.
The machine sprang into action when the player put a coin into it. An arm handle was pulled, which put the machine’s three reels into motion. The reels then stopped automatically after spinning around multiple times, and the symbols that appeared on the center “line” would be the determinant of a winning or losing spin. The objective of the player was to achieve three Liberty Bells in a row, and at that point, the payoff would be 50 cents.