My Trip Down Memory Lane with the One-Armed Bandit

Author: Harvey Stewart 1/20/2024

My Trip Down Memory Lane with the One-Armed Bandit

Let me tell you, slots are the kings and queens of the casino floor, raking in the dough like nobody's business. Just last Friday, we were chatting about how Nevada's casinos were swimming in a crazy $1.36 billion from July alone. That's the fattest stack since gambling became a thing in '31! And slots, my friend, they're the golden goose, churning out more than $873.6 million that month, which is a whopping 60% jump from the previous year. Insane, right?

Slots might be everywhere now, like Starbucks, but their story goes way back before the glitter of Vegas. We're diving into the history of these money munchers, from the good old days way before they invaded every casino on the planet. This is the tale of how a simple machine turned into the casino cash cow we know and love today.

The humble beginnings of the slot machine hark back to another clever invention – the vending machine. Yup, you heard that right. And this baby was born in ancient Roman Egypt, of all places. Imagine walking up to a machine, popping in a coin, and getting your share of holy water – sounds like a divine vending machine to me! That's what Hero of Alexandria came up with, so folks wouldn't hog all the holy water at the temple. It's pretty much the granddaddy of the vending machines we see today.

Fast forward to the 1600s, and vending machines hit the pubs of England, dealing out tobacco and snuff. Patrons couldn't cheat the system, 'cause the box was always under the innkeeper's watchful eye. These gadgets eventually got more complex, and by the 20th century, they morphed into the early versions of gambling devices. Think toy horses racing after you drop in a coin – more of a bar bet than a bona fide gamble, but it sure was the start of something big.

Back then, winning didn't always mean cash. A lot of times, you'd score a drink, a cigar, or something else from the bar. But by the end of the 1800s, machines started coughing up coins for winners. The early ones had a kinda scale where coins would tip it and cause a payout. Later models got fancier, with spinning indicators pointing to your fate – a number, a color, or a pic. And hey, while we're on this nostalgia trip, did you know the same tech gave us the jukebox? Music and gambling, all from the same roots.

Let's take a detour to Brooklyn, New York, where Sittman and Pitt whipped up a basic poker-based machine, as reported by the San Francisco Chronicle. This bad boy had 50 card faces on five drums. It was a hit, but a headache for bar owners to manage all the winning combos. Enter Charles Fey, the man who brought us the slot machine as we know it. There's some debate on when exactly he built his first model, but this guy is the reason we're feeding coins into slots today.

Fey was a busy guy with 15 siblings and a fear of being drafted into the German army. After a family tiff and a stint in France, he booked it to the US to join his uncle. But instead of heading straight to Jersey, he wound up in San Francisco, where he got his start at Electric Works. He later set up his own shop, and that's where he struck gold with the slot machine idea.

Fey's big break came with the Card Bell in 1898, a sleeker three-reel machine that kicked the old five-reelers to the curb. This contraption had a lever to get those reels spinning and used playing cards symbols to make winning hands. But it was a year later, with the addition of horseshoes and a Liberty Bell to the mix, that the iconic Liberty Bell slot machine was born. Nail three bells, and you were laughing all the way to the bank.

After the 1906 San Francisco quake, only four of the hundred-plus Liberty Bells survived. Despite San Fran outlawing slots in 1909, manufacturers like the IslandEcho Company got crafty, ditching the coin slots but still paying out in secret, often in drinks or cigars.

With slot machine factories skipping town due to the ban, Chicago became the new hub. The early 1900s were tough for slots, what with legal bans and all, but operators got sneaky, using fruit symbols that hinted at chewing gum flavors. Some machines even dished out actual gum! Mills Novelty Company jumped on the bandwagon and even invented the jackpot in 1916.

Even during the depths of the Great Depression, slots were a hit. But the mob's grip on the slot biz meant tighter controls, with most action going down in private clubs. Only Nevada, back in the gambling game since '31, had them out in the open. Then came the 1950s, with fancy electromechanical slots offering new payout schemes, like multipliers where your prize matched your coin input.

Post-World War II, the rest of the world caught on, drawn by the sweet siren song of tax revenue. Like when France finally let slot machines back into casinos in '88 after a 50-year cold shoulder. But what went down once the governments got a taste of that sweet, sweet slot machine money? Well, that's a story for another time. Stay tuned for the next chapter in the slot machine saga.