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One-Armed Bandit: A Biography

One-Armed Bandit: A Biography


The invention of the slot machine had the same impact on the gambling industry as the invention of the wheel had on the human civilization. This article tells the story of the Slot, from the 19th-century gambling apparatus to the latest video slots available on the screen of your smartphone.

 Born in America

The very first slot machine that we know of was made available to the public in 1981, in Brooklyn, New York. The company Sittman and Pitt that created it based their machine on poker: after feeding a nickel (USD 0,05) in the slot, the players pulled the lever, and waited for a poker hand to land on the reels. The first slot had five drums with fifty card faces. The payout strategy was somewhat underdeveloped at that time, so the reward that a lucky gambler got depended entirely on what was in stock at the bar: a free drink or cigars, most likely. An attendant would be watching over the payouts, handing out tickets to the winners. To make matters more complicated, the “house” was very much determined to win, so the cards that helped get the royal flush, the Jack of Hearts and the Ten of Spades, would be removed from the machine, and, since the concept of provably fair gambling had not yet been introduced, the drums could also be reordered to further lower the clients’ chances.

Despite these shenanigans, the new machine was well liked by the players, and bars would often install several of these.

Automatic Payouts

The problem with automating payouts was that there were just too many possible card combinations, so the next step was to move away from the poker game and simplify the mechanism. This was done by Mr. Charles Fey, a mechanic from San Francisco, in the period between 1887 and 1895. He improved Gustav Schultze's "Horseshoe Slot Machine" and created the first slot with the automatic mechanism that would pay out coins. This improvement, naturally, boosted the machine’s popularity even further.

Fey went on to establish a slot workshop and created the famous “Liberty Bell Slot Machine” which had three reels instead of the initial five drums and would pay 50 cents if the three bells landed on the reels. The “Liberty Bell machine had only five symbols. Beside the liberty bell, there were spades, hearts, diamonds, and horseshoes.

Sadly, this wonderful invention could not be patented due to gambling being illegal in California. Imagine the number of copycats. For example, in 1907, Herbert Mills, a Chicago manufacturer, came up with the “Operator” slot machine, and next year the machines of the “bell” type were available pretty much everywhere, from saloons and barber shops to brothels.

The Fruit Machine

Another name of the slot, “The Fruit Machine”, comes from the trade simulators that had fruit images on their reels. Paying the winnings in fruit was, in fact, a way of avoiding the anti-gambling laws that existed in some states. The prizes could also be paid out in candy, chewing gum, or cigars.

This simple trick, of course, soon attracted the attention of the law, and a simple vending machine was twice convicted as an immoral device by the court. Both cases took place in Iowa. The machine in question would give a random client some tokens that could be then exchanged for candy. The court declared it to be a gambling device and stated that it “appealed to the player’s propensity to gamble”, which was, naturally, a vice.

The First Electronic Slot

The first slot machine that was completely electromechanical appeared in 1963, crafted by Bally Manufacturing, a Chicago-based company that also manufactured pinball machines. It was called “Money Honey” and could manage an automatic payment of five hundred coins all on its own.

Until now, the player would pull the level on the side of the machine and stretch the spring which would gradually stop the spinning reels (this mechanism also resulted in another name for the slot machine – “The One-Armed Bandit”). In “Money Honey”, the process was operated by electricity. It was well liked by the players, which led to the replacement of the good old mechanical slots at the saloons and the increase in popularity of the electronic games in general. 

The Video Slot

The first actual video slot was created in 1976 in Kearny Mesa community, California, by Fortune Coin Co. The first screen to display the reels was a 19-inch Sony Trinitron color receiver mounted in a slot cabinet. The innovation was presented to the general public at the Las Vegas Hilton Hotel and was approved by the Nevada State Gaming Commission.

With the arrival of the microprocessors, video screens, and random number generators, the popularity of the slot machine continued to grow, but the quaint mechanical one-armed bandits were quickly forced off the scene. A button was all it took now to set the reels in motion, and the design possibilities were all but endless, limited only by the capacity of the video screens. The electronic connection between the slot machines allowed the creation of progressive jackpot slots that made literally every coin count: every cent that was put into one of the connected machines increased the jackpot. Eventually, the slot machines became responsible for up to 70% of the casinos’ revenue.

Online Slots

The great breakthrough came in 1996 when WMS Industries Inc. released world's first online slot, "Reel ‘Em”. It featured an ultimate innovation - a second-screen bonus round that allowed winning extra payouts.

Since then, the popularity of online slots skyrocketed. They come in all shapes and sizes, with multiple bonus features, can be played on virtually any device, for fiat money, bitcoin, and various other popular cryptocurrencies. The amount of money poured into (and out of) the online slot industry constantly grows as well. The current Guinness World Record belongs to Microgaming’s online slot Mega Moolah, which brought its player a £13,209,300 jackpot in 2017.

Words: Jelena Schmidt

Images: Shutterstock

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