Aside from poker, the slot machine is the gambling pursuit that has become most firmly engrained in American culture. Back in 1939 famed author John Steinbeck included a café slot machine in meaningful chapters of his classic The Grapes of Wrath. And today, millions of senior citizens make their pilgrimage to the slot machine meccas of Las Vegas or Atlantic City, hoping to beat the odds and hit a jackpot.
As is the case with most games, the historical origins of the slot machine are still slightly disputed, with two parties located on either coast of the U.S. laying claim to the title of inventor.
Most historians believe that the first slot machine was developed in 1891 by the Brooklyn-based company Sittman and Pitt. This machine was based on poker hands and contained five rotating drums capable of displaying a total of 50 card faces. Players would insert a nickel and pull a lever on the side of the machine to spin the drums, with the objective being to form any high hand (from one pair on through a Royal Flush). This lever gave rise to the nickname “one-armed bandit”, because the machines managed to part players from their bankrolls more often than not.
One of the unique aspects of the early Sittman and Pitt slot machines was that they didn’t offer direct payouts on winning hands. Instead, the house (usually bars and nightclubs) would provide the player with prizes. Legend holds that a pair of aces was usually good for a complimentary beer, while better hands might earn a cigar or a shot of bourbon.
The fact that there were only 50 card faces available on the Sittman and Pitt machines meant that the house also enjoyed a healthy edge on players. By removing two cards from the standard 52-card deck – traditionally the 10 of spades and the Jack of hearts – the house made it significantly more difficult for players to complete a Royal Flush.
While Sittman and Pitt popularized their slot machine along the Eastern Seaboard, a German immigrant by the name of Charles Augustus Fey was doing the same in San Francisco. Some accounts hold that Fey’s mechanical slot machine was first produced in 1887, which would make it the first by a few years over the Sittman and Pitt design, while other historians place the invention right around 1895.
In any event, Fey’s innovation managed to improve on the poker-based game devised by Sittman and Pitt by fixing that game’s fatal flaw. Because there are so many possible poker hands to be made from a 52-card deck (or even a 50-card set of drums), setting the machine to pay winners out automatically proved to be practically impossible.
Fey solved this dilemma by simplifying the slot machine’s basic structure. He used three reels rather than five drums, while abandoning the poker-based gameplay for a more basic design. By using just five symbols (Hearts, Diamonds, Spades, Horseshoes, and the cracked Liberty Bell), Fey created a slot machine capable of determining payouts for all possible winning combinations. The high “hand” on Fey’s machine was three Liberty Bells in a row, which usually paid out a jackpot of 10 nickels.
Fey’s “Liberty Bell” design became ubiquitous and fueled a booming gambling industry during the early- and mid-20th century. Slot machines today still utilize Fey’s original layout, incorporating all variety of symbols and combinations to add variety to the game, but sticking to the same essential structure. Slot machines are by far the most popular option on the gaming floor, and modern casinos dedicate massive portions of their property to serve slot players.