The History of Slot Machines

September 7th, 2006 3:49 pm EST

What is the first thing you think of when asked about inventions that are over 100 years old? A lot of things might come to mind- electricity, the telephone, the typewriter. But would you honestly be able to answer slot machines?

Most people are unaware of the history of slot machines, but they have been around since the first one was hand made back in 1887! Because today’s casinos are filled with electronic screens and slot machine variations like Video Poker, it is hard for anyone to imagine that the slot machine actually had very humble origins that date back over a century.

The first slot machine was invented in San Francisco, California by an immigrant named Charles Fey. For this reason, Fey is often thought to be the grandfather of modern-day slots games. Even though there have been a lot of obvious technological advances, today’s slot machines are actually quite similar to the very first one that Fey made from scratch. If you saw the two of them side by side you would know they are cousins (albeit distant ones).

This first rustic-looking machine was made of iron since there were few other materials that could be procured at that time in history. Fey first built the iconic reels that are still used in modern-day slot machines. Today you see all kinds of pictures on them but Fey stuck to the basics- horseshoes (for luck), spades and hearts (like the suites in a deck of cards) and bells because of the ringing sound a machine would make upon a winning spin.

The original Slot machine was a runaway success, mostly due to the incredible curiosity surrounding the “one-armed bandit”, as the machine soon came to be called. Fey became the proprietor of not only that machine but several machines he built after that. He would rent them out to game rooms and they would pay him back half of the take.

At first, only women played the one-armed bandit, as it was thought to be a mindless game that was suitable for the fairer sex. Real men played cards. Remember, the year was 1887 and women in the US couldn’t even vote at the time!

From these humble beginning raised a Slots mania that still exists today. Depending on the casino, Slot machines can be responsible for anywhere from 30-60% of a given casino’s revenues. Though those “mindless” women still serve as the biggest part of the core of Slots enthusiasts, the gap is quickly closing as more and more men get in on all the fun.

Today, that original Slot machine has spawned such variations as Progressive Slots, Video Slots, Video Poker Slots, Bonus Slots, Multi-Reel Slots and more. The original machine is on display in a museum in Reno, Nevada today along with a picture of Fey. And to think- Fey was only 29 at the time of his invention that changed the world of gambling forever.