The evolution of slot machines has been incredible to sit back and watch. The history of slots is rich in that evolution and even though the games are very different in how they look now compared to back then, the fundamentals of the slot machine remain very much the same.
In this article, we want to look at where it all started and how we’ve got to where we are today as the most popular casino game in the world. We’ll also talk about the future of slots and what you need to look out for over the next few decades.
We need to head back to the late 19th century to start our journey when the humble slot machine first came about.
In 1891 Sittman and Pitt created the first incarnation of what would later become a slot machine. The machine was derived from poker and it allowed players who were no longer active at the tables, to continue to play on their machines.
The games were a little different to what you see now, with players needing to make poker hands on the 5 drums (reel) set up which included 50 cards across the 5 drums. At the time, there were no monetary winnings, instead, winning combinations were paid out behind the bar in the form of cigars, free drinks, and other rewards.
These machines grew in popularity with players, but it was time-consuming for landlords to police them and continually have to payout. What was needed was more automation.
Cue Charles August Fey and his Liberty Bell.
Fey took on the role of altering the machine that had been created by Sittman and Pitt to make it fully automatic. The Liberty Bell was designed at the start of 1887 and its release occurred gradually, mainly across New York City, up to 1895 before it became a little more mainstream.
The design of the machine moved away from poker and instead made it a lot easier to both function and play. He dropped from 5 drums to 3 and removed the vast range of cards that were represented in a poker game to include just hearts, diamonds, horseshoe, spades and the now infamous, Liberty Bell.
Fey wanted to create a machine that was portable and didn’t take up too much room. The best connection aesthetically would have to be in the form of an old cash register.
The Liberty Bell doesn’t look a million miles away from what would be a traditional slot machine even today. It’s got three reels, a lever and a paytable at the bottom.
Inside the machine, the mechanism was used with pins that would align when winning combinations were landed on the reels (drums). Once they occurred, money would be dispensed at the bottom and the player would collect from here, as opposed to from behind the bar.
Fey had failed to add any copyright on the machine before launching, so this meant that many companies were able to create copies. Some were better than others, but the Liberty Bell was soon just one of several slot machines that were starting to take the US, and then eventually the rest of the gaming world, by storm.
The Liberty Bell launched with 6 symbols in total:
These symbols are very different from that of the original slot machine game, which was more linked to that of poker and cards. They still referenced some of these cards, but instead of the value been a number, it was the suit of the deck.
What’s interesting is that, even though the development and change for slot machine symbols have changed dramatically over the years, there are still many that include these exact types of symbols. The range is now iconic with slots and often referred to as “classic” slot symbols.
The industry and the rise of slot machines were dealt a hammer blow in 1902 when the machines were officially banned. A workaround was needed and, in its place, arose the fruit machine.
It wasn’t the machines that were banned, it was the cash payment that each game had. Therefore, to get around this, the games no longer paid cash and instead paid out in the form of items such as chewing gum and sweets.
Chicago based manufacturer, Herbert Mills was the spearhead of these machines and even changed the symbols to include images of fruits. Games were very popular in bowling alleys, public spaces, tobacconists, and public houses.
As games progressed and technology became more advanced, the move away from mechanical slots to electrical slots started to gain traction. Bally, who was a relatively young company at the time, released the Money Honey slot in 1964, changing the way games would be created forever.
The slots were now computerised for the first time and this was a huge leap for the industry. The main issues they faced was trust from their players, with most, at the time, not trusting the electronic set-up.
However, keeping the lever-style design meant that a certain degree of familiarity was still there and eventually, the games started to flourish. The inclusion of a bottomless hopper meant that payouts could massively be increased, without the need to constantly monitor and manage them.
By 1976 video slots were very much here to stay and it was a company called Fortune Coin there were spearheading the infiltration of the machines initially across California and the US, but eventually worldwide.
Video slots allowed game developers to be much more creative than ever before. The introduction of the first slot bonus feature came about in 1996 when WMS released a game called Reel ‘Em. In today’s marketplace, the game is innocuous, but the addition of a bonus game that was on a separate screen altogether from the main game is another iconic moment for video slots. You can find all the available slot bonuses here on Casinos.com
Whilst the movement toward video slots is one that progressed steadily over the years, the inclusion of this bonus feature is a moment that showed the potential of the games that we see today.
When the first slot machine set about in the late 19th Century, there could have been few predicted that they would have been as popular as they were some 100 years later. But the reality is that the games were very similar to the original Liberty Bell game, until the development of the internet and online slots.
A lot of the video slots that had been created to this point might have functioned the same, but, looked and performed very similar. It wasn’t until 1996 when the online casino industry started to take off did slots get a new lease of life.
It was InterCasino that got the ball rolling online and they were the first to produce and host an online slot. Games were basic compared to modern standards, but started to feature and develop new symbols, such as wilds, scatters, free spins rounds, bonus rounds, multipliers and even side games.
To begin with, the games were generally made in-house by the casinos, but this quickly changed, with development companies setting up to create intricate slots that had a huge range of features and themes to choose from.
Games moved away from three reels and a single payline to now include multiple reels and hundreds of paylines with some games. There are modern slots that have essentially removed reels altogether, coming in all shapes and sizes, with grids and cascading blocks being some that are currently very much en vogue.
The way the games work is also very different from the mechanical variations and even early video slots. They each have a random number generator that comes with a complex algorithm to create a truly random outcome for the slot each time.
That being said, they can be set up to be more or less aggressive (volatility) changing the dynamics of the slot, which again adds depth.
Jackpot games always have (and always will) be some of the most popular slot types for any casino. They offer players the chance to win huge sums of money for a very small outlay.
Initially, jackpot games were linked to a single machine. The player would need to hit a combination of symbols to trigger the jackpot and then they would take their winnings from that machine should they trigger it.
These games changed massively once the introduction of progressive jackpots was introduced on the Megabucks slot by IGT in 1986. Instead of the jackpot being on a single machine, it was linked on all machines that were the same game throughout the city of Las Vegas.
The Megabucks slots still hold the record for the biggest land-based jackpot win of $39million back in 2003.
Online setups have been a perfect fit for progressive jackpot games. They usually run by the game developers which means that the game might be in hundreds of online casinos which then creates a huge footfall of players.
The biggest progressive jackpot games will pay out several million and multiple games in this sector regularly hit this mark. They include the likes of Mega Moolah, Major Millions, Arabian Nights and Mega Fortune.
Interestingly the majority of the biggest land-based jackpot wins have come from the Megabucks slot progressive in Las Vegas. Below we’ve listed the biggest winners, but keep checking back this list will be updated as and when those jackpots hit.
The biggest online jackpot win came from a professional poker player where, whilst waiting between poker games to start, he placed a 25c bet on the Mega Fortunes slot in 2013 and took down the incredible $24 million jackpot.
The future of online slots is very exciting. As progression in technology is at an all-time high, online slot is only going to take advantage of this, making them bigger and better than ever.
Advancements in tech like 5G means that games are going to be highly accessible to players on the go. We are already seeing a huge shift toward mobile casino games and we don’t expect to see this end any time soon. Whilst online casinos will likely be around for some time yet, they are dying, and fast, so we wouldn’t be surprised to eventually see casino companies move completely to mobile.
Mobile casinos mean mobile slots and this is where game developers are going to hedge their bets. Games will look better on mobile, and they will function better as well.
In addition to that, things like AI headsets and virtual reality gaming could be another avenue for slots to head down. This will allow players an immersive casino gaming environment and could be great fun to get interactive with high-end slots.
It’s been a long road for slots to get to where they are today as the most popular casino game. Some are still sceptical about how they work, but the reality is that few casino games are as immersive and fast-paced.
Whilst some games may look and work very differently from the likes of the Liberty Bell, there are still plenty that doffs their cap in appreciation to the work that Charles Fey put in all those years ago.
The future for online slots is very bright and on the back of the development of the last 100 years, we are excited to see where they go over the next 100 years.
Fana is a writer and content specialist who specializes in the dynamic world of international publishing. For the past few years, her area of particular interest has been in the evolution of gaming laws due to her legal background. You can catch her sailing or swimming at the nearest beach when she's not keeping up with the most recent iGaming developments or honing her poker abilities.Read Full Bio