The History of Slot Machines: Who Invented Slots and When?

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A row of slot machines with the BAR and 7 symbols.
BetMGM Jun 19, 2024, 3:58 PM

Slot machines are, hands down, the most popular casino games played! Whether it is online or land-based, there are so many different kinds of slot machines to choose from. Well, if you ever wondered who invented the slot machine, now is the time to find out. The next time you sit down at a slot machine or spin the reels online, you can appreciate the incredible slot machine history.

Long before online slots were the norm, gamblers would use a device operated by dropping one or more coins or tokens into a slot, pulling a handle, or pushing a button to activate the reels. Of course, land-based machines are still very popular. But before all the technology, slot machines were quite simple devices with symbols such as stars, card suits, bars and numbers. 

When Were Slot Machines Invented?

In the modern sense, the Bavarian-born American inventor Charles August Fey invented the first slot machines. At the time, in 1884, he was a mechanic in San Francisco who built his first coin-operated gambling machine. In 1885, he built the 4-11-44 (also spelled “Four Eleven Forty-Four”) in his basement. It was such a hit at a local saloon that he eventually quit his job and opened a factory to make more slot machine units. In 1898, Fey developed and built the Card Bell, considered the first three-reel slot machine with the world’s first automatic cash payout. It had a handle to set the reels in motion when pushed down.

Fey’s next slot machine was the Liberty Bell, which he built in 1899 and used horseshoes and bells, along with playing card suit marks on the reels. The player received the top payout if three bells lined up in a row. Sadly, due to the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, only around four Liberty Bell machines built by Fey survived. The Liberty Bell was as popular as the top casino table games are today. Fey’s competitors copied the design, including the Mills Novelty Company of Chicago.

Many forces, including the clergy and the law, frequently opposed the operation of slot machines. In 1909, San Francisco banned the operation of slot machines. Fey and his competitors built machines with no coin slots where purchase and payout with drinks and cigars occurred surreptitiously across a saloon counter.

The Fruit Machine Era

Between 1902 and 1908, as cash prizes were no longer allowed, the era of the fruit machine commenced. On these machines, you would find fruit symbols and believe it or not, prizes were paid out in chewing gum and sweets of the corresponding flavor. In 1907, Herbert Mills produced a slot machine called the Operator Bell. The machine was seen in most bowling alleys, tobacconists, shops and salons. At this stage, the BAR symbol that we see in online casino games was introduced to slot machines — it was based on the logo of the Bell-Fruit company.

The Next Developments of the Slot Machine

Slot machines continued to remain purely mechanical. To start playing, you would have to pull down a lever, which would set the reels in motion. Of course, this made players feel like they could control the game and the outcome. This contributes to the reason that slot machines became so popular.

Fast forward to 1964, the year that Bally released the first fully electromechanical slot. The reels, named “Money Honey,” were operated electrically. However, you still had to start the game by pulling the lever. It was the first slot machine with a bottomless hopper, meaning it had an automatic payout of up to 500 coins. It was a huge success and increased the presence of electromechanical slots. The familiar and loved lever was removed from new slot machines.

In 1976, the first true video slot machine was developed. This was the biggest evolution since the dime slots era. Designed in Kearny Mesa, California, by the Las Vegas company Fortune Coin, the game used a modified 19-inch Sony TV for the display. When you look at the history of Las Vegas, you’ll see that the game was first made available at the Las Vegas Hilton Hotel. After it received some cheat-proofing and modifications, it received approval from the Nevada State Gaming Commission.

Slot Machines Next Milestone

Slot machines received their next milestone in 1996 when WMS Industries Inc. released “Reel ‘Em.” It was the first video slot that featured a second-screen bonus round. This meant that a bonus round would trigger a completely different screen where the bonus round took place. Players would also receive additional payouts during this bonus round. As this slot game gained traction, it also became sought after at casinos.

The Introduction of Online Slots

During the mid-’90s, the internet boom brought incredible and exciting developments of the first online casinos. As with land-based casinos, online slots quickly became popular. The style of slot games changed and meant that casino players were gifted with more options than ever before. Today, you can play various slot games with fun features and themes. There are even slot themes that can teach you about history.

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Actress Vanessa Hudgens flipping casino chips next to the text "The King of Casinos"
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Our BetMGM editors and authors are casino experts with a wealth of knowledge of the online casino industry at all levels. Their coverage includes company news, game reviews, how-to instructional articles, strategy guides, and editorials showcasing BetMGM’s superior product and game library.

Our BetMGM editors and authors are casino experts with a wealth of knowledge of the online casino industry at all levels. Their coverage includes company news, game reviews, how-to instructional articles, strategy guides, and editorials showcasing BetMGM’s superior product and game library.