Early Slot Machines

By Teresa Ambord

If you're a fan of slot machines, you can thank the inventor of the first reel-based machine, Charles Fey, back in 1895. His machines were such a hit that his small shop couldn't produce them fast enough. Larger companies in the gambling industry wanted to buy the production and distribution rights, but he refused.

The Bells

Later Fey teamed up with the Mills Novelty Company of Chicago, to manufacture the Mills Liberty Bell slot machine.   The Liberty Bell was made of cast iron.  Its features included a Liberty Bell cast on the front,and cast iron feet with toes.  The reel strips showed playing cards, king, queen, and jack of diamonds, hearts, and spades, and on each reel, one cracked Liberty Bell. A winning combination would cause a bell to ring.  If the reels landed on three bells you won the big jackpot of ten nickels.  Later models eliminated the ringing bell and the cast iron toes (which were replaced with ornate scrolled cast iron feet). But Fey's idea of a jackpot announced by a ringing bell was brought back later, as evidenced by nearly every modern slot machine.

In spite of the fact that, at one point in the 1900s, an anti-gambling movement began that caused many slots machines (including some made by Charles Fey) to be burned, smashed with hammers, or dumped into the sea, many interesting antiques still remain.  Fortunately, the original Liberty Bell was one slot machine that survived.  It is still on display at the  Liberty Belle Saloon & Restaurant on 4250 S. Virginia, Reno Nevada.  If you visit the restaurant, you'll not only get to see the original Liberty Bell, but also hundreds of other models of slot machines, from antiques to modern.

In 1910 Mills Novelty came out with the Operator Bell, a variation on the Liberty Bell.  This new machine had a gooseneck coin entry, and the fruit symbols we now associated with slot machines.  More than 30,000 Operator Bells were made, each weighing over 100 pounds.

Just five years later, in 1915, Mills Novelty began making a less costly version of slot machines with cabinets made of wood instead of cast iron.

In the 1930s, Mills introduced other changes, including eliminating the noise.  The new machines were so quiet you couldn't hear them if you stood a few feet away, which is why they were called the "Silent Bell."

New Excitement Added

Eventually, Mills sought to entice players by making its slot machines colorful and theme-based.   Also they opened the double jackpot which meant players could win twice in quick succession.

The Lion's Head was the first theme machine in 1931, which still had the gooseneck coin acceptor.  Later came the War Eagle and the Roman Head, and in 1933, the Castle Front which displayed coins as they were deposited. Players could watch the coins move across the top of the machine.  That added extra excitement, and also let the machine's owners rest easy since they could see if slugs were being put into the machines.

The So-Called, One-Armed Bandits

As the 1960s rolled in, mechanical machines with pull handles ― which were easy to cheat with ― began to be replaced with electronic machines.  Mechanical machines were limited in the payouts because of their physical construction.  Electronic machines made more wins and bigger payouts possible, and cheating was harder.

Also in the 60s, Bally revolutionized the slot machine business with its multi-coin, multi-Model 831 line machines which are so prevalent today.

Video Slots Appear

In the mid 1970s video machines were introduced and gradually spread through the industry.  Players were a little unsure that they could really win, since they could no longer see the spinning reels.