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Slot Machines: Two Decades Of Evolution

We sit down in a cozy arm-chair, relaxed, put the fingers on the knobs or buttons – and watch the reels spinning at a lightning speed, merging strings of icons into one exciting river of entertainment… We feed the note to the machine, win some hundred bucks and take the ticket to the cash office to get our due. We watch splash screens, touch the screen to find hidden treasures, play dozens of poker parties at once and then, with a few clicks of a mouse, order a free meal in a restaurant.

At the very top of fun we take this wondrous machine for granted, but little do we know that this self-sufficing joy of a thing has been going on and on under the name it got half a century ago – the Slot Machine!

Initially, though, the name was a rather cumbersome one – ‘nickel-in-the-slot machine’, which referred to American five cents inserted into the slot. In essence, the name described incessant insertion of five-cent coins into metallic machines that were spread in San Francisco saloons on the verge of the 20th century. You could also find them in tobacco shops, where they became known as ‘cigarette klondikes’. However, the first of the nicknames seems to have stuck, being further shortened to ‘slot machines’, since you could pay with other coins as well.

The name by itself nowadays is scarcely meaningful. The word ‘slot’, which means a socket for accepting coins, has become a thing of the past, as all the plays now play with paper money they insert into the receiver and win so-called ‘credits’. Soon the coins will be completely useless, but the name of the machines will remain intact.

The first piece of equipment called a slot machine was an invention by Charley Fey called ‘Liberty Bell’, presented in 1899. Fey would never recognise, though, his brainchild in today’s slot machines! The immense popularity that his machine enjoyed resulted in development of new models, the bulk of which was realised within the following twenty years.

Certain changes that have affected the game up to the present, together with breath-taking advances of the recent decades, make a list of novelties that decide contemporary gaming process. We have shortened this list to include twenty items. So, you are about to read about 20 technical ideas that have shaped slot machines. This hot twenty will also explain why gambling machines became one of the most popular kinds of modern entertainment.

The facts below are given more or less chronologically, not in order of significance. All of them are equally important, showing how slot machines have become what they are today.

1. Liberty Bell – the pioneering slot machine.

Gambling machines had existed even before Charles August Fey, a German immigrant living in San Francisco, made his invention public and placed slot machines in his saloons. Their exterior, however, was quite different.

In the 1890s slots were popular in San Francisco bars, but rather resembled furniture, not machines. Some of them looked like robust, bizarrely decorated counters with a roulette-like wheel activated with a lever. Others were small poker machines with cards made of steel revolving around their axis and forming a deal.

Fey’s invention, called the Liberty Bell, had three reels with the lines of symbols, including bells, horse shoes, stars and card suits. They were moved with a spring. The player inserted the coin into the slot, pulled the side lever to squeeze the springs. After the push, the springs expanded and rotated the reels which were stopped by a special mechanism. If the symbols coincided, the player earned the so-called ‘jackpot’ – the pot with the money.

The design of this 3-reel Liberty Bell slot became the basis for all the forthcoming machines. Even those state-of-the-art one-armed bandits that are built entirely differently owe some of their feature to the first classic machine, so you’d better remember its name: the Liberty Bell.

2. Electromechanic slot machine

For six decades the main design of a three-reel Liberty Bell remained intact. Its exterior, of course, was modified, but even as late as in the 1950s most of the slot machines were nothing more than metallic counters with three revolving reels following Charles Fey’s original design.

In 1964, however, Bally Manufacturing, Inc. made the first major breakthrough in the modern era of slot machines by introducing the game ‘Money Honey’. This was the first ever electromechanic slot machine. Mechanic springs and levers were substituted with servounits and other electric parts. Still, this was only the beginning…

‘Money Honey’ featured a range of novelties that redefined the very notion of slot gaming, due to which they became a viable alternative to other board games in a casino. You could insert several coins in the machine at the same time, and your winnings increased with each new coin.

It was equipped with self-dumping module that could accommodate hundreds of coins and a large metallic tray at the bottom due to which the delivery of coins was accompanied by magnificent ringing sound. On top of all that, electricity had magic power over the players: they were attracted to bright lights, multi-coloured illustrations, hooting, ringing and other cheeky sounds. ‘Money Honey’ was the predecessor of modern slots that never tired of admiring and exciting gamblers.

3. Slot machine operating on dollar coins

In the late 1960s and early 1970s Bally Inc. continued renovating and perfecting their products. One of the biggest successes was the installation of ‘dollar roundabout’ in northern Nevada.

What the company did was to widen the slot for dollars and a tray for silver coins that were ringing merrily when somebody won. Due to dollar bets gambling houses could offer larger jackpots to their players. The bars of northern Nevada were crowded with brightly blinking slots, players swarming around. This was the birth of a powerful industry as we know it now.

Slots were always considered supplementary to casino entertainment; they were placed there mainly for women waiting for their husbands who were playing the roulette or blackjack. Thanks to Bally slot machines, gambling house owners for the first time thought of slots as the primary source of enrichment, thus allotting them the best places in the halls formerly occupied by board games.

4. Video poker and the rise of IGC Inc.

Bally distributor – Ci Redd – was one of the leading supporters of dollar slot machines in the 1970s. In the early 1980s Redd suggested that Bally Manufacturing management in Chicago implement a new invention which he called ‘video poker’, which was a computer based poker game – an electronic imitation of a 52-card pack with random layouts flashing on screen.

Bally bosses were reluctant to go any further with that, so Redd was allowed to patent his invention and go it all alone. In the retrospect, we might think of Bally’s decision to give up on video games for the following 10 years as sheer folly, but this is exactly what the company promised way back then. Redd was only too glad – together with Fortune Coin he founded his own company called Sircoma. The sales of brand new slots for video poker finally reached incredible numbers, and so the new kind of gambling entertainment – video poker – was born. After that, Redd went on to incorporate his own business in 1982 – International Game Technology (IGT).

A couple of years later IGT would acquire the copyright for a new invention which was destined to revolutionise casino industry – an electric method of result selection on disk-based gambling machines. IGT made use of this invention and took over the slot machine market, outclassing Bally with such games as ‘Double Diamond’, and ‘Red, White & Blue’, still the most popular slots in the US.

5. Virtual reel and stepping engine

No doubt, virtual reel was the finest novelty since the glorious times of ‘Liberty Bell’ of Charles Fey, and perhaps even more important than that, because it took the slots to the next step of immense popularity.

Inge Telnaus was a computer technician with Bally in the late 1970s. His responsibility included the improvement of probability system that enabled higher jackpots but still large revenues for casinos.

At that time, the only way to increase time between jackpots was to add more symbols on the reels or add additional reels. When the limit of the symbols one could place on the reels was finally reached, Bally used the help of computer technology.

Telnaus invented known as a ‘virtual reel’. It worked thus: the digits were entered into the program, with each digit corresponding to a certain layout on the reel. The whole row of digits corresponded to the same result. The bulk of the combinations were losing ones, and only some of them gave winnings, that is, maximum jackpot.

The program that randomly generated combinations went through all the values and randomly chose one of them after a signal – at first, with the insertion of a coin, and then at the start of a video slot.

As a result, it became possible to digitally imitate reels with as many symbols as the developers saw fit. Hitting large jackpots became much less probable, so companies could advertise larger jackpot sums. Duplication in the program resulted in decreasing the probability of a random choice, so a handsome prize could come up with any spin.

This invention, patented in 1984, created an impulse to an incredible increase in popularity of slot machines. It was further improved by G. Garris and R. Adams from Universal Inc. with a stepping engine used to stop the reels simultaneously upon computer request. With the introduction of a stepping engine, slot machines changed for ever.

Bally Inc., having released the first Series E1000 slot with a virtual reel, used the renewed system in the first popular Series E2000 slots before the stepping engine was invented. The same system was used for creating ‘Blazing 7s’ – still the most popular Bally machine.

The luckiest of all was the new IGT company that bought the copyright for the invention and used it for developing new machines featuring such innovative functions as multiplying symbols (‘Double Diamond’, ‘Triple Diamond’, etc.) and extensive payout charts (‘Red, White & Blue’) to raise the maximum jackpot. After all these refinements, slot machines became immensely popular.

6. Monitoring the players’ results and slot machine clubs

After E2000 slot machines released by Bally and S-Plus by IGT became widespread in the 1980s, a new market strategy emerged to maximise benefits from the slots in form of gambling clubs for casino patrons.

Gambling clubs that appeared in Atlantic City used a program of monitoring their clients similar to the one used by the airlines. Gambling clubs monitored their players’ activity and encouraged active players with the help of a special computer module that read electronic information stored in slot machines.

In this way casinos received information on those who spent the most at the machines and awarded them with the privileges formerly accessible to rich gamblers only. Slot gamblers were presented with free meals, hotel rooms, pricy gifts and other privileges after inserting their club cart into the slot.

Nowadays, sophisticated monitoring systems, such as ‘e-Series’ and ACSC used in Bally that are tied up to the Slot Data System (SDS), Integrated Gaming System (IGS) in IGT; Wizard in Acres, recently acquired by IGT, and popular OASIS used by Aristocrat make it possible for the players to get monetary rewards right on their machines, use keyboards to book a table at a restaurant and be eligible to special advertising prizes that were unheard of before the rise of gambling clubs.

7. MegaBucks

In 1986, IGT made one of the major breakthroughs in the history of slot machines. It set up the first large-scale network that united all the progressive jackpots. After video slots became customary in the casinos and truly large jackpots were the norm, IGT decided to play it big and work out a completely new kind of jackpot that had been hitherto unknown.

Their idea was to unite the slots in different parts of Nevada into a common progressive jackpot fund by telephone lines; thus, the emerging modem technology was borrowed from telecommunications industry.

Every coin inserted into the machine of IGT contributed to an incredibly large jackpot of tens of million of dollars, and the chance of hitting it was incomparably higher than the chance of winning a national lottery (some thousand million dollars). By taking the name of the lotteries popular on the East Coast of the US, IGT called this new system Megabucks.

Large-scale Megabucks slot system is still existent in different forms – from games with the same name to other games, including Wheel of Fortune and MegaJackpots, licensed by other companies. Other companies, too, hurried to found their own large-scale progressive systems, such as Thrillions by Atronic, Arizona Magic by Bally, and Cool Millions by Aristocrat.

8. Game on credits

Young gambler will be surprised to know that 20 years ago each new bet required a new coin physically inserted into the slot, and all the jackpot, irrespective of their size, were paid by coins thrown in a tray. If you decided to continue the game, you had to manually collect the coins and insert them back…

In the middle and the end of 1980s the first screen-equipped slots appeared, monitoring the scores of players. The slots with revolving reels used an LCD display, while video poker games had the tableau right on the screen.

By pressing the button, the gambler could effortlessly use previously earned points to go on with the game. The ‘Get Money’ button on the other side of the slot converted the points into scores thrown on the tray after the game. At first, the idea was frowned upon, therefore, the game on credits was an optional one – those players who got excited after hearing the sound of the falling coins could still take their winning from the tray. This option completely vanished, though, after the next novelty just below…

9. Note receiver for slot machines

Any gambling lover from the 1970s must remember those dark times when you had to exchange your notes for coins before going to a gambling house. The floors of the houses were littered with wrappings of packs of coins, and unwrapping such a pack was seen as a sacrosanct ritual. Some retrograde gamblers still relish this procedure; most slot lovers, however, gave up that idea after note receivers were introduced in the middle of the 1990s.

Note receivers have made the gambling process really easy: players no more had to find intricate ways to get those coins; instead, they just entered the gambling house, approached the slot, inserted the note and started the process.

As with credits, note receivers were not immediately accepted by everyone. One source of criticism, which is praised by some players, though, is the speed of gambling. Many slot lovers believe that watching their funds is easier when you play with coins, and so they press the ‘get money’ button after inserting the coin, thus playing ‘from the tray’ as in the good old days. We’ll soon see that this option was not meant to stay for too long. Like it or not, note receivers have made a huge impact on modern slot machines.

10. The introduction of Game Maker – a multi-game video slot

Bally Inc., revived under the name of Bally Gaming, after almost going bust in the middle 1990s, decided to get back on top of slot business with a wonderful invention of 1992. By using the concept of video lottery, Game Maker became the first large-scale machine with a variety of video games in one. Game Maker gave spectacular freedom to its players: they could choose any game – video poker or other – from the comfort of their chairs.

Nowadays there are lots of more sophisticated multi-game slots, including newest IGT machines and those that give the players a chance to choose the value of coins and notes before betting – 5 cents, 25 cents or dollars. All of them, however, are rooted in Bally’s intention to make gambling machines versatile.


11. Bonus multi-level games

 Anchor Games Inc. controlled Nevada’s gambling industry as well as two small casinos in Colorado before merging with Global Game Distributions in the 1990s to form Anchor Gaming.

Company’s president T J Matthews (now managing director with IGT that acquired Anchor last year), former head of Global Game Distribution and head of a new company, supervised the process of game creation at his own Anchor. The idea was that people got tired from simple entertainment where reels with symbols were just revolving and that was all.

The first slot by Anchor, called ‘Silver Strike’, had a special prize round, the so-called ‘Bonus Jackpot’ that flashed in silver letters on the upper transparent panel of the slot.

This new design was rather risky; the gamblers, however, were mad about it. Soon after that, Anchor started fruitfully cooperating with IGT; as a result, several games featuring bonus jackpots were released in the late 1990s. A certain symbol on the reels activated a bonus round on the upper panel that conformed to a certain scheme – it could be a round of pin ball, ouths and crosses or some free spins.

All of a sudden, gamblers found themselves addicted to bonuses – they were waiting for them as an integral part of the game. After all, a bonus round is much more exciting than dull spinning of the reels. Soon afterwards, important changes took place with the development of wheels by Anchor…


12. Wheels (of fortune) in slot machines

The next brand novelty of Anchor Gaming became placing the wheel with the winning sectors on top of the slot; it looked rather like a carnival wheel of fortune. A special symbol on the reels started off a bonus round where a player press the button and in that way turned the big Wheel of Fortune and got a bonus prize. The very first time it appeared in Bally’s slot, it was called ‘the Wheel of Gold’. This game was a huge hit all over the world and still runs in some gambling houses.

But it was IGT that turned the wheel of fortune into the most popular slot in history. IGT had a license to construct a machine based on the famous ‘Wheel of Fortune’ TV show. At first, there was a video slot released, and it was a failure; soon, however, the idea struck back with unique Anchor wheel. The decoration for the machine was based on the original TV show, so the wheel was a replica of the real one. Upon hitting the symbol that invited you to turn the wheel, you could hear a familiar tune: ‘Wheel… the… Fortune!’

It was the first machine that made advantage of Americans’ love of television. ‘The Wheel of Fortune’ is a forefather of TV-based video slots. However, it had other features that made it unique: it combined the functionality of all the popular IGT games in one powerful machine. ‘The Wheel of Fortune’ was part of a large-scale progressive jackpot, its fans having the most fun with ‘Double Diamond’ or recurrent symbols. Perhaps, they still have that fun, as ‘Double Diamond’ is the most popular in the world and has spin-offs in form of two video games.


13. Video slots with several paylines

 They were called Australian video slots initially, as the idea of multiple paylines first appeared in Australian-based Aristocrat Leisure Industries. However, when Aristocrat came up with the same idea on American market in the mid 1990s, the face of entertainment was changed for ever and a day…

Americans were used to slots with a single payline. Aristocrat products, on the contrary, featured 5 video reels and 5, 9 and more paylines. The payout charts of such machines gave players comprehensive information about a video slot, including winnings for various combinations (now, up to 50 of them against 8 or 9 in a conventional slot).

At first, such machines accepted 25 cent coins only, but casino bosses soon understood the profits they could get from introducing smaller – and faster vanishing – coins for betting: one and five cents. Such small bets that seem so insignificant amounted to middle-sized bets in the slots that in sum outnumbered the revenues from 25-cent slots.

State-of-the-art slot machines had one more innovation – the second screen for a bonus round. A certain combination on the reels switched the video screen  to an animated image, and the player needed to find the hidden treasure during the round.

The effect was truly phenomenal. Soon other American companies started releasing their own multi-linear, multi-symbol slot machines, such as ‘Reel ‘Em In’ by WMS Gaming or ‘iGame’ by IGT. This boom resulted in the rise of those slots with video games that we witness now, accepting coins and notes, starting from a single penny, offering bonus games on second screens and treating you to every thing imaginable – from cartoons to classic TV shows and blockbuster trailers.


14. Sensor screen in video slots

 Alongside an obviously lucrative formula of multi-linear slot machines, other innovations came afterwards that were destined to make the game more comfortable for the player. The trend with the bonus rounds was for the player to pick one of the suggested alternatives.

Besides, slot machines became much more complex than classic 3-reel slots, so manufacturers equipped their products with additional helping screens where explanations for possible winnings were given, paylines indicated and button explanations provided.

Initially, to choose the options on the screen or entering Help section, plastic buttons were used on the panel under the main screen.

Soon, however, manufacturers made life much easier for us with sensor screens! They contracted MicroTouch and ELO Touch Systems to supply needed materials, and, in next to no time, players could chose bonus options and make their choices by simply touching the screen with a finger.

This technology found its way into video poker. The players just touched the cards on the screen the wanted to keep and automatically discarded the rest. The gaming speed, as a result, increased manifold…

The latest sensor screens have even more advanced capabilities: SmartTouch by Sigma enables a player to touch any symbol on the reels and read the payout schedule that corresponds to a certain combination. In other words, the Help section is available any time with no efforts whatsoever.

After playing a sensor-based video slot, you’ll find clicking those traditional obsolete buttons quite useless – and perhaps offensive!


15. Multi-game video poker: Triple Play Poker

 As during the first decades of slot machine history, the basics of video poker remained unchanged for the first 20 years after inventing the game. In 1998, however, Ernie Moody, an inventor, and his company called ‘Action Gaming’ joined forces with IGT to release a revolutionary slot machine for video poker – Triple Play Poker.

Players bet 1 to 5 coins on each of the three handouts done simultaneously. The screen initially shows 3 identical layouts, with 5 cards in each. Players choose cards in all the layouts. Then, dispensed cards are replaced from separate packs (each having 52 cards).

The payout rate, clever strategy and all the rest associated with video poker remain the same; the bets and the winnings, though, triple in size, creating a funny instability – you can either win a lot or quickly lose what you already have.

As with the virtual reels of slot machines, Triple Play became the biggest breakthrough in this industry since video poker appeared. This game has already produced some imitators, including ‘Five-Play’, ‘Ten-Play’, ‘Fifty-Play’ and ‘Hundred-Play’ poker; each of them increases the number of initial layouts, bets, and, correspondingly, your winnings. Many players still prefer a simple and time-tested video poker with a single layout, but serious gamblers who are with it will never give up their favourite layouts.

If you are into Internet casinos, you probably know that they offer similar kinds of poker. And now you know the background of the story.


16. Sophisticated videos in slot machines

 While video poker lovers enjoyed the doses of adrenaline from several layouts, plain slot machine lovers saw the most advanced visual and acoustic effects ever saw or heard in gambling houses. In the recent years, all major slot manufacturers released video slots with the most sophisticated computer effects. Video platforms EVO by Bally, MKVI by Aristocrat, Hi(!)bility by Atronic and brand new CPU-NXT by WMS and AVP (Advanced Video Platform) by IGT have raised video slots to a new, previously unimaginable, level.

Mind-blowing video effects follow you in Jeff Foxworthy by Aristocrat; Robin Hood: Sherwood Treasures by WMS Gaming, SNL by Bally and Mystery Task by Atronic. Similar effects are found in new releases – Wheel of Fortune AVP by IGT and super-popular Star Wars. Smooth, cinema-like animation, spectacular 3-D graphics and transparent stereo sound add to the many features and capabilities of the game.

Their potential grows every day: new betting systems appear, such as a double-sided system used by Atronic, in which an additional bet on the line enables to get winnings from right to left as well as vice versa; multiprogressive Sigma system, in which additional coins give a chance to hit a large jackpot; Reel Wheel by Aristocrat where you pay for the reels, not the lines, with jackpot paid out when the whole set of symbols appears on all the reels.

The gaming process on the reels gets better and better with advanced in technology. Sometimes it seems that perfection is here already. All we need is to scream with delight; still, each year gambling companies astound us with their inventions.


17. Chance prizes in slot machines

 Acres Gaming company, now an affiliate of IGM, was the first to come up with the idea of additionally rewarding its players. Nowadays, groups of slot machines are united by a single center for jackpot control, and special programs send a bonus prize or a so-called ‘mystery jackpot’, formed with part of the bets, to one of the machines on a completely random basis.

To get this bonus prize you don’t even have to hit upon a winning combination on the reels – all you need is to participate in the game. Acres introduced this way of earning prizes several years ago in a new Hurricane Zone slot, and at present such a range of bonus games is a feature of almost every major slot manufacturer.

Quite recently, Aristocrat took bonuses to a new height with two slots – Hyperlink and Bonus Bank. In Hyperlink, you get a usual bonus round as a prize, which ends with a sure-fire hitting of one of the four progressive jackpots. In Bonus Bank, you need to make an initial payment to get one out of five random bonuses which might be given to you simultaneously or at small intervals.

In a word, gambling industry is still thinking up ways to keep you in the game. Of course, this is done to enrich casinos, but we cannot escape the observation: what they do is so freaking pleasant!


18. Ticket in, ticket out: cashless revolution

This innovation is only rising, but experts agree that ways of payment in the slot business have already changed for ever. For a long time, paying paper tickets as a prize was a privilege reserved for video lotteries, but the eve of the 21st century saw this practice spread to slot machines, too.

You insert paper money into the receiver, play on credits only, and in the end get a neat ticket which you can exchange for money or use to continue the fun at another slot. Comfortable, huh?

Manufacturers are keen to equip their products with ticket (cashless) paying systems, and casino bosses are willing to try them out. Freedom from coins means not only clean hands and no waiting till the tray gets filled, but also saves casino owners millions of dollars which would otherwise be spent on storing and counting coins. Such gambling houses as Suncoast in Las Vegas and Bogata in Atlantic City are now completely cashless.

According to the experts, such ticket systems as E-Z Pay (IGT) or eTicket (Bally) are the first step towards cashless slot machines. There are casinos like Oneida Nation’s Turning Stone, located in northern New York, where paper money is unheard of at all.

Cashless slots work with debit paying systems. At a cash desk, gamblers exchange paper money for a club card with a certain number of points. During the game the number of points change, and gamblers can get their winning at the cash on completing the game. This and similar cashless systems will shape the slot industry  even faster than we can imagine.


19. Self-cashing

 We have already seen on many examples that modern technology makes life easier for gamblers. Together with ticket systems, self-service booths appear, where you can cash your ticket without waiting in a queue.

These booths have become the center of gambling houses: you can cash your tickets and obtain prizes there. They are really useful places for those who dislike long queues.

Casinos where coins are still in use (and by this we mean the majority of coins) have responded to the trend with self-service machines to exchange coins. Indeed, such facilities are a panacea for those who remember tiresome waiting with pockets full of heavy coins.

In the foreseeable future, more booths and less queues are expected…


20. New ergonomics

 Last year, gambling industry saw a new word enter its vocabulary – ergonomics. The term refers to those slots which are constructed to maximise comfort of the player and keep him by the machine as long as possible.

The new tendency was quickly taken on by all major companies. AVP Royal (IGT) changed the angle of the screen to minimise its glowing and offered a sloping seat with soft panels for palms and wrists. EVO Hybrid games (Bally) have their sensor screen closer to players, so that they don’t have to leave their seats.

The most radical changes, though, are seen in new ergonomic Bluebird slots (WMS) and E-Motion (Atronic). Bluebird was initially created to meet the comfort demands of the player. A curved button panel, a sloping monitor and a cozy chair help you relax and get access to all the gaming options without leaving your seat. E-Motion is equipped with elongated screen, which height is adjusted with special knobs. The slots for club cards, note receivers and the button panel are placed with the gambler in mind.

On top of all that, A.C. Coin and Slot company has joined forces with furniture suppliers Majestic Industries and TC Millwork to create a fully ergonomic set of a counter and chair for A.C. coin slot machines. The height of the chair is adjusted with a gas cylinder, similar to a hairdresser’s chair. There is an aperture at the base of the counter for the gamer’s legs – it is covered with soft carpet.

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  • Tony says:

    I believe that I might be in possession of the first “Wheel of Fortune” game produced by Bally’s. The game is from the 1950’s and when the wheels align you go to the bonus feature which incorporates the”Wheel of Fortune”. I am interested in selling this unit, but I am looking for the value of it. Can anyone help. Thanks…