Slots History

by John Grochowski

Let’s go back to the late 1800s to begin the Slots History for this lesson at the Learn, Play Slots program. 
There was gambling then, of course. There seemingly always have been games of chance. Sheep’s knuckles fashioned into dice have been found at sites dating to the Roman Empire.
But we’re not going that far back in slots history. We’re going only to the beginnings of slot machines. And in the late 1800s, there were a proliferation of coin-operated gaming devices. There were machines that used cards as symbols, and machines with huge vertical color wheels, in which you’d bet your money on which color the wheel would stop.
Finally, in the late 1890s of slots history, there was the Liberty Bell.
Developed by Charles Fey in San Francisco, the Liberty Bell was where the machines, as we know them began.
Whether you’re playing online or offline, with three spinning reels or with five on a video screen, the Liberty Bell is where the games we play today begin.
If you were to see a Liberty Bell machine today --- and there are a few still in existence --- the first thing you’d think would be “slot machine.” There would be no wondering what this old device was about. It’s instantly recognizable as the type specimen of the games we play today.
Fey’s creation was the first recognizably modern version. Symbols on its three spinning reels included horseshoes, stars, spades, diamonds, hearts and bells. It was so popular for slots history that for a time all three-reelers were referred to as ``Bell machines.''
And while it was the first of the modern versions, the Liberty Bell was not the first of the Bell machines. Fey had an earlier creation, the Card Bell. It was a gaming device, too, but it didn’t use horseshoes, stars, bells and such. It used pictures of playing cards as its winning symbols. It was popular, but it was the Liberty Bell that captured the imaginations of the first generation of fans.
With a casing made of sheet metal on a brass frame, the Liberty Bell was durable and attractive. There was no neon, flashing lights or sound effects, but it was a game that was played by dropping a coin in the slot and pulling the handle to start the reels, just as players have been doing for more than a century.
Moving slots history forward, today it’s often a push of the button or a click of the mouse that starts those reels spinning, but the essentials of the game are there since Fey began it all in the 1890s.
Fey was a German immigrant with a background making instruments for electrical supplies companies. He set up a workshop in his basement in Berkeley, Calif. and it was there that he created many early machines.

Other manufacturers quickly followed with their own versions, and slot machines quickly spread through the United States, even in jurisdictions that didn’t permit gambling. Many early versions were used as trade simulators by merchants, and paid out golf balls, chewing gum, candy, cigars and more. If a merchant wanted to pay out something more than golf balls to customers with winning spins --- well, that was between the merchant and the customer, if they could get the law to look the other way.
One frequent prize listed on machines in saloons was free drinks. Some versions of the Liberty Bell listed a pay table with a top jackpot of 20 free drinks for three bells. Some poker machines paid as many as 100 free drinks for a royal flush. That’s a lot of shots of Old Redeye.
Along the way of slots history, many of the symbols we still see today came into use and just stayed, even if the reasons for the symbols being there faded with time. The fruit symbols still used today come to us from flavors of chewing gum dispensed by the Liberty Bell Gum Fruit slot made by Herbert Mills in Chicago in 1910.
Not all the gum symbols survived to modern use--we see no current machines that use spearmint leaves as a reel symbol.
Three-reelers frequently use bar symbols --- single bars, double bars, triple bars. That comes by way of the Gum Fruit slot, too. The bar symbol still in use today is identical to the Bell Fruit Gum logo used as a symbol used on early slot machines.
The only difference is that nowadays the white lettering on the black bar says ``BAR,'' whereas it used to say ``BELL FRUIT GUM.''
The bar also bears more than a passing resemblance to the Wrigley arrow still used on packages of Spearmint and Doublemint gum.
Some early slot machines dispensing Wrigley's gum used the Wrigley arrow as a symbol.
You probably don’t think of Charles Fey or the Liberty Bell, of golf balls and free drinks, of Fruit Gum and bar logos, when you play today.
They’re present nonetheless, a slot history tradition that continues whenever the reels spin.

From Slots History, we look at the History of Progressives
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