Where did slot machines come from, and how have they achieved the remarkable popularity we see today?
Although the first slot machines were manufactured on the East Coast of the US, they didn’t start to gain acceptance until they had migrated all the way across the country to San Francisco around the end of the 19th century. In the aloons and brothels of the notorious Barbary Coast and the Tenderloin districts in America, customers won a cizar or a free drink when they played a nickel in the primitive slot machines, which at that time used playing cards as winning symbols. Few of the players understood the math of those devices, and consequently the proprietor” raked in enormous profits.
There were many slot-machine manufacturers in those days, but only one is credited with creating the “modem” slot machine that included spinning reels and cash payouts. Charles Fey, a German immigrant, invented the Liberty Bell slot machine in 1899 that stands as the template for every machine built from then to the present day.
The three-reel design was copied by many other manufacturers and, by 1905, thousands of slot machines could be found in the US, in cigar stores, barber shops, saloons and bowling alleys. The Liberty Bell was a simple machine to explain. Each reel operated independently of the other, and stopped one after
the other. Each reel had ten symbols or “stops”. As a result, there were 1,000 different combinations (10 x 10 x 10 = 1,000). Three specific symbols had to be lined up in order to win the jackpot, which meant there was only one way to win out of 1,000 possibilities.
The early machines were often rigged to prevent the big jackpots from hitting, but even this fix didn’t prevent the growing popularity of the aptly named “one-armed bandits”.
The San Francisco earthquake of 1906 destroyed the factories of every slot-machine manufacturer, but, along with the rest of the city, the companies returned after the destruction with even greater force. But when preachers blamed the earthquake on God’s wrath on the sins of the city, slot machines were outlawed in San Francisco in 1909, and soon after in California and Nevada.
To skirt the law, slot-machine manufacturers disguised their machines as “gum” machines that would dispense packs of gum for jackpots. To further camouflage the machines, playing card symbols were replaced by fruit – cherries, lemons, oranges, peaches, etc. – and labels of the gum brands dispensed that evolved into the “bars” on today’s slot machines. The imposition of Prohibition in 1918 ushered in the return of illegal slot machines and the lure of banned liquor and gambling caused an explosion of slots during the Roaring Twenties. The “Golden Age” of the slot machine ended quickly when Prohibition was repealed in 1934. Except for Nevada, where gambling of all sorts was legalized in 1931, slot machines were illegal and not tolerated across the whole of the US. A mini-revival of slot machines was enjoyed after World War 2, until Congress passed the Johnson Act, which banned slot machines in all states which hadn’t legalized gambling as a whole.