If you were asked to guess how many slot machines are in existence worldwide today, what would you say? 500,000? A million, 2 million? Not even close. In 2012, the estimated number of slot machines worldwide was between 7 and 8 million, a figure that is undoubtedly increasing yearly. The 2012 statistics showed that Japan has by far the largest number of slot machines, followed by the United States (with well over 800,000), Italy, Germany, Australia, Spain, the UK, Canada, Mexico, and Peru.
Slot machines are by far the most popular form of gambling today and also the biggest money maker for casinos. They are virtually everywhere imaginable—in brick and mortar casinos of all sizes, arcades, mom and pop groceries, drug stores, and supermarkets, in airports, and online. No special skill is required, so anyone can play. You don’t necessarily have to travel anywhere either. You can open up your laptop, phone, or tablet wherever you are and start playing immediately. According to CBS news, Americans spend more money today on slot machines than they do on movies, baseball, and theme parks combined.
Today slot machines are practically synonymous with gambling, but that was not always the case. At one time, the term slot machine referred to any kind of automatic vending machine, not just those designed for gambling purposes. Only in the 20th century, the term slot machine took on the special meaning that it has today.
The Earliest Slot Machines
Slot machines for gambling have a long and colorful history dating back to the late 19th century. The earliest contraptions that appeared in places like NYC and San Francisco were nothing like the modern marvels that are now a fixture in casinos all over the world. They used playing cards because those were the most familiar symbols to gamblers. The machines typically had five reels with 10 cards out of the 52 in a deck on each. Only the 10 of Spades and Jack of Hearts were left out (on purpose to make getting a Royal Flush virtually impossible).The prize wasn’t money, but free drinks, cigarettes or cigars that were given out to the winning patrons at the bars where these early gambling machines were located.
The first mechanical slot machine that bore any resemblance to today’s slot machines was also invented long before you were born, in 1895, by a car mechanic, Charles Fey in San Francisco. It was called the Liberty Bell, and it had three spinning reels. The symbols were diamonds, spades, hearts, horseshoes, and the Liberty Bell. The top prize for anyone lucky enough to get three Liberty Bells in a row on one spin was 10 nickels (50 cents). If you would like to see the actual Liberty Bell itself that was the inspiration for this grandfather of all modern slots, head to Philadelphia. If you would like to see the original Liberty Bell slot machine, it is on display at the Liberty Belle Saloon and Restaurant in Reno, Nevada.
In addition to the Liberty Bell, Fey was credited with having invented the first draw poker machine. He also invented a device called the trade check separator, which had a hole in the middle with a detecting pin so that slugs could be distinguished from real nickels.
Initially, Fey rented out the Liberty Bell to bars and saloons. However, the demand became too overwhelming for him to meet by himself. In 1907, an arcade machine manufacturer in Chicago, Herbert Mills, started producing a knock-off of the Liberty Bell, called the Operator Bell. That machine was the first “fruit machine” with the familiar cherries and other fruit symbols.
The bar, which was another popular early symbol, was a logo of the Bell Fruit and Gum Company. Many of the early fruit and bar symbol machines actually gave out fruit flavored gum rather than coins as prizes as a way of getting around anti-gambling laws. If a customer didn’t want the gum, no problem. It could be redeemed for cash!
All of the early slot machines like the Liberty Bell and Operator Bell and other similar machines had three reels, each of which had painted-on symbols. The player put coins into the slot and pulled a lever so that the reels would start spinning. A winning spin occurred when the reels lined up with matching symbols, and the player was paid off accordingly.
Back in the day, slot machines were big, heavy, and clunky, and it took strong muscles to keep pulling the handle for any length of time. In fact, the familiar term “one arm bandit” originated with those early machines because of the combination of the crank arm way they operated plus their tendency, all too often, to take the player’s money and give nothing back.
But not everyone who played was a loser on these machines because another problem was that they were very easy for cheating players to manipulate. Even when the machines would not accept slugs instead of real money coins, a cheating player could fare even better by inserting a small stick into the machine to stop the reels at the desired location.
From Illegal to Illegal
While the early slot machines were popular, they would have been more popular if they did not have so many problems associated with them. Besides the unwieldy way they operated and the high incidence of cheating, the operators had another big concern—they were illegal. In fact, as already mentioned, that was why the payouts were often in drinks, tobacco, or gum rather than money, and if they were in money, it was usually for token amounts. Nevada was the first state to legalize any form of gambling, with the legalization of poker (but not slots) in1901.However, in 1909, a new state law made virtually all forms of gambling illegal in Nevada, and in 1912, no gambling of any kind was allowed in the state. In 1915, slot play was legalized in Nevada, but limited to $200. It was not until 1931 that all forms of gambling became fully legal in Nevada and the first licensed casino in the U.S. opened. It was only a matter of time before most other states also passed laws to allow slots and other types of gambling in designated locations. Depending on the state, slots can now be played legally in such varied locations as privately owned licensed casinos, Indian reservation owned licensed casinos, riverboats, and racinos (racetracks with slot machines and frequently poker).
Electronic Slot Machines
The incredible technological advances that took place over the course of the 20th century were reflected in corresponding advances in slot machine technology. The animated horseracing machine called Paces Races, which appeared in 1934, was the first popular electromechanical gambling machine. However, Money Honey by Bally Technologies, the world’s first electromechanical slot machine, did not appear until 30 years later. The difference from earlier slot machines was that instead of having completely mechanical components, the newer machines like Money Honey had electrical components as well, which resulted in more visually exciting extra touches (like flashing lights) and improved game play, and enabled multiple coin bets with higher payouts. The use of electronic microprocessors also made these machines more secure.
The Fortune Coin Corp. released the first fully electronic slot machine in 1975. Then IGT bought the patent in 1976 and further developed and marketed it. One important advantage of the new technology was that it allowed for multiple slot machines in different locations to be linked together for a shared progressive jackpot. In 1976, IGT invented Megabucks, the first linked progressive slot jackpot network.
Interestingly, prior to the availability of electromechanical and then fully electronic slot machines, table games were much more popular than slot machines. However, with the advent of the improved technology, slot machines started to quickly take over as the most popular form of gambling.
Slots in the Computer Age
Starting in the 1980s, computer technology further revolutionized the slot machine industry. Slot machines were offering more choices than ever before, including the option to choose from different games and denominations even at the same machine. Action-packed 5-reel video slots were introduced, many with games within games and added special features like bonus rounds, free spins, and multipliers. The bells and whistles made these games much more exciting to play than the traditional 3-reel slots. Another big change was that it was no longer necessary to play with a cupful of coins since the machines would accept paper currency instead.
Nowadays, when a player is ready to cash out, most slot machines will release a voucher which the player can either take to the cashier or redeem for cash at a cash dispensing machine. However, large jackpots are paid out by an attendant.
Prior to the 1990s, online slots did not even exist. However, over the course of the past two decades this exciting new way to play has become a worldwide phenomenon. In 1994, Microgaming was founded, a pioneer in online gambling software, that has remained at the forefront of the online gambling industry ever since, serving as a model for numerous other companies that have also created online software. However, most of these companies’ products. Including Microgaming’s are off limits to U.S. residents. There are a few online casinos, like those powered by Realtime Gaming (RGT), licensed in Curacao, which accept American players.
In addition, in 2011, the U.S. Court of Appeals overturned previous legislation prohibiting online gambling in this country, leaving the decision to individual states if they wish to enact laws permitting state-run online gambling sites to operate. Thus far, online gambling has been legalized in only three states, Nevada, New Jersey, and Delaware, although it is a possibility soon in a few other states. The Nevada online gambling sites are for poker only, while New Jersey and Delaware also have online casino gambling, including slots. The Delaware online casinos are limited to Delaware residents only, while to play in the New Jersey casinos, you do not necessarily have to live there as long as you are physically present in the state at the time of play.
Online gambling offers players many advantages over land-based casinos, the most obvious of which is its great convenience. Many people do not live near a land-based casino or for one reason or another find making the trip impractical. Online gambling saves the time and expense of travel. It is also a great option for those who are on the go a lot because they can simply take their laptop, tablet, or phone with them and play whenever they want. Most online casinos offer a very generous Welcome Bonus to new slot players, usually a 100% match of their first deposit, and frequent players receive a lot more. Best of all, online slot machines have higher payout rates than most land-based slot machines. The typical payout is between 95 and 98%.