The History of Slot Machines: How They Rose in Popularity

At the forefront of a multi-billion-dollar industry, slot machines are often the face of the gambling and entertainment offered by casinos, and they give players the chance to win hundreds of thousands, if not millions in monetary prizes. Popularised in the late 20th century across the Las Vegas Strip, these machines have seen decades of evolution and innovation, and the modern day has provided a platform for their adoption into the digital age as the future of online gaming which continues to grow in popularity.

Despite their ancient roots, the presence of slot machines in the modern day gives players the chance to widen their horizons and live the life they can only dream of, but their popularity was not always cemented in mainstream society. Exploring the history of slot machines shows the way these machines have evolved coming into the 21st century.

An Ancient Slot Machine?

The origins of the modern-day slot machine can actually be traced back to ancient roots, where its evolution can be attributed to the innovation of the Egyptian engineer Hero of Alexandria, whose creation of the first vending machine inspired the slot machine we see in casinos around the world today. Hero’s aim for his vending machine was a far cry from those we see in the modern day – instead of dispensing snacks for on the go, the machine was actually designed to dispense a controlled amount of holy water from a temple – when a coin was deposited, it would fall into a tray that pulled on a lever, and the catch would open to allow the water to flow out. This action would become the cornerstone for later vending machines, which were closely followed by slot machines to be used in gambling.

The lever introduced by Hero is still a key function of the modern machine, and although these machines still rely on that early innovation, from the 19th century to today, they have seen a significant shift in their capability and appearance. Built in 1891, the first slot machine was developed by Sittman and Pitt, a New York based company. It cost a nickel to play and used the same lever system as the older vending machines did; this time, however, the lever was designed so that the player could insert their money and pull the lever to play – the dropping of the nickel would allow for the lever to be released.

Unlike the slot machines used today, the early versions designed by Sittman and Pitt were missing a direct pay-out mechanism, so any prizes, including non-monetary ones that would have been on offer, were paid to the winner at the bar, instead. According to a report from San Francisco News,  the reason for this limitation around an automatic pay-out system lay in the complexity of the different outcomes the Sittman and Pitt machine could generate – the machine was based on the game of poker, and used fifty card faces which were spread across five different drums that players would spin to create a poker hand combination – it was these combinations that would determine if someone was a winner.

The Evolution of Modern-Day Slot Machines

Despite the development of the Sittman and Pitt machine, the invention of the first slot machine is often attributed to Charles Augustus Fey – sometime around 1887 to 1895, he created his own machine that included an automatic payment system. Fey was also the first engineer to use the now-famous five symbols – hearts, spades, horseshoes, diamonds, and the Liberty Bell. This, coupled with the replacement of the current machines’ five drums with three, led to a much less complex machine that could cope with an automatic pay-out system.

Unfortunately for Fey, although his new design revolutionised the slot machine industry, he did not patent it as his own, and so other manufacturers, who were at the time relying on the Sittman and Pitt blueprint, switched to the Fey design and these machines subsequently exploded in popularity. Indeed, despite slot machines being banned in 1902, fruit machines allowed for the Liberty Bell machine to continue to be manufactured – although cash prizes were disallowed, these fruit machines, which were paid out in confectionary instead, were pivotal to the rise in popularity of slot machines, as they were often found in non-gambling locations as well as casinos, such as salons and bowling alleys.

Later in the century, around 1976, the introduction of video displays to slot machine screens by the Las Vegas based company Fortune Coin, was a key player in the adoption of these machines across Las Vegas; after the approval of the video slot machines by the Nevada State Gaming Commission, now also known as the Nevada State Gaming Control Board, they became highly popular and as a consequence started to be seen across the Las Vegas Strip.

The acquisition of Fortune Coin by IGT, one of the gaming industry’s global leaders, cemented the video slot machine’s position as a casino giant. Improvements to these video machines by individual companies were then frequent, with one of the more popular additions being the ‘Bonus Round’, a second screen that followed the initial jackpot and allowed for more prizes to be won, introduced by WMS Industries Inc in 1996.

Slot Machines in the Digital Age

The rise of online technology and the digital age has led to a shift in many industries as they transition to the online world, and casinos are no different. Although initially offering only a handful of classic games online, such as roulette and blackjack, online casinos now host a huge variety of gaming options, including slot machines, on their platforms. From the first online jackpot, Cash Splash, offered by Microgaming, to the eye-watering jackpots offered by some online casinos today, the digital age has introduced a new era of opportunity to online players.

Such casinos like Jackpot Casino not only offer players the chance to win big, but also give them additional extras like deposit bonuses, free spins and daily cashbacks — benefits that players of physical slot machines do not traditionally have access to. With VIP loyalty features, online casinos like Jackpot Casino are leading the way in the online gaming space for slot machine games. Traditional, physical machines still bring in a huge amount of travel and tourism around the world, especially in places like Vegas where the excitement of the environment is just as enticing as the jackpots themselves.

It is easy to see how the technological advancement of slot machines has given rise to new technologies in the online sphere offering games that don’t require a player to invest time and money into travelling to casinos, allowing them to play from anywhere, at any time. It does raise the question, though, will society one day see the Las Vegas Strip handing over the reins to online casinos with their easy-to-play and accessible-from-anywhere slot machines? Will the lever activated machines one day be replaced entirely by a mobile device? Whatever the answer, one thing is for certain – slot machines, in whatever form they take, are here to stay. While players can keep winning life-changing sums, and online casinos can provide these players with ever-growing benefits and bonuses, there will always be a place for slot machines alongside more traditional casino games.

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