Added in Casino History on June 15, 2019 by Jim Murphy

Slot machines are likely the most iconic of any casino game. Even people who have never been in a casino know what they are and how to play them. Not that they’re difficult at all which is a large component of their enduring popularity. A player just pulls the handle and/or presses a button which starts the reels spinning and hopes for the best.

There’s considerable debate about the various gambling devices throughout history and their influence on what would eventually become the slot machine. The actual beginning of slot machines is widely accepted as the creation of a gentleman named Charles Fey. Fey invented the conceptual prototype for the slot machine sometime in the late 1800s which would lead to him designing the first commercially available slot machine in 1895. Entitled Liberty Bell it was a huge hit and offered not only the first device with slot machine gameplay but also the first system of automated payouts.

Slot machines would see incremental improvement and innovation over the next few decades but it wasn’t until the 1960s and 1970s when they started to become a significant component of the casino product mix. For most of the 20th century, table games ruled gambling casinos around the world and particularly in Nevada. Slot machines had been available to casino patrons since the 1940’s but weren’t particular popular. The old stereotype was that you’d park Grandma at the nickel slots and let her loose while everyone else went to play blackjack or craps.

The popularity of slot machines in casinos started to boom when Bally Manufacturing designed the first fully electromechanical slot machine called Money Honey. Their innovative design gave players the opportunity to cash payouts of up to 500 coins without the need to stop play or call an attendant. The casinos liked this setup as it reduced their labor costs and kept customers playing. Electromagnetic games quickly became the norm and the handle on the side of the slot machine served only as an anachronistic decoration.

Slot machines continued to increase their market share of casino floor space throughout the 1960’s but it would be over a decade before the next major change in the gameplay itself. In 1976, the Las Vegas based Fortune Coin Company released the first true video slot machine. Initially, players greeted the video games with some skepticism theorizing that physical analog reels were somehow more ‘honest’. An initial test run at the Las Vegas Hilton showed promise it wouldn’t be long before they began to pop up all over the ‘Silver State’.

TECHNOLOGICAL IMPROVEMENT LEADS TO GREATER POPULARITY

Technology would continue to improve in the coming decades. This transformed many industries including casino gaming. The design and gameplay of slot machines leveraged this technological growth to provide more excitement for players. Multiple pay lines had been seen on slot machines since the 1970’s though seldom more than 3 to 5. In the late 1990’s, video slots continued to evolve to add an increasing number of paylines. The result was a payline ‘arms race’ that would eventually reach absurd proportions. What would begin with 9, 15 or 25 lines would ultimately reach the thousands with some games offering as many as 1024 separate paylines.

A extremely significant innovation in slot machine play was the advent of progressive jackpots which allowed players the opportunity for huge paydays. The progressive jackpot would then grow beyond the individual casino via networked, multi-casino progressive games like “Megabucks” with jackpots in the tens of millions of dollars. Slots continued to accept more and more credits—many would allow players to wager up to 15 coins per spin.

Today, most slot machines are build around some type of licensed ‘theme’ in hopes of attracting players with familiar iconography. A slot machine based on the game show ‘Wheel of Fortune’ became a massive hit and it would usher in a flood of themed games covering every topic imaginable: TV shows such as “I Love Lucy” and “Game of Thrones”, movies like “The Godfather”, popular music celebrities running the gamut from Dean Martin to Madonna.

About the Author

Jim Murphy

For more than 25 years, Jim Murphy has written extensively on gambling theory and practice. Jim Murphy has been quoted in media from the Wall Street Journal to REASON Magazine. Murphy worked as a radio and podcasting host broadcasting to an international audience that depended on his expertise and advice.

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