A Bit of Slot History

Surely when Charles Fey built his first slot machine in 1896 he never could have envisioned where the contraption would travel and how it would transmogrify. In fact, for a hundred years his innovation hardly changed at all, except cosmetically. The external design, consisting of an ornate metal box was wrapped around the mechanism and became fancier or plainer, larger or smaller, in attempt to attract the eye. But as always, when a player primed the machine with coins and pulled the handle, the reels spun randomly and, governed by stoppers eventually came to a halt. Each reel was decorated with a variety of symbols that, when matched according to a pay schedule (printed somewhere on the face of the machine), the player won; when no matching symbols appeared, the player lost.

Though Fey is given credit as the Father of the Slot Machine, prototypes existed years before he came up with the idea of converting them into gambling device--which he believed would enhance the profits on his sales routes. These early "amusement devices" could be found in saloons where polite society would not be exposed to them and where proprietors stood on the edge of breaking the law.

These first apparatuses had a major drawback. They were designed in such a way that after a certain number of coins were inserted the weight of these coins would tip the scales and some of the stored coins from previous play would spill out, thus providing a winner. It didn't take long for street-smart players and wise guys to figure out that the coins would come out automatically with a little pushing and shoving and slamming the machine around. So it was back to the drawing board where clever builders devised first a metal bar to help prevent "tilting," and then came up with smaller devices that could be bolted to a counter top or wall.

Meanwhile, in dignified establishments such as grocery stores and mercantiles, a similar piece of equipment began popping up and being played by even the snootiest of patrons. Called the trade simulator, this machine operated much like other contemporary devices except that the winners produced could be exchanged or traded for goods within the establishment--thus the name "trade," perhaps a forerunner to the modern cents-off coupon.

Playing slots was (and is) both a tactile and sensory experience involving the feel of the coins and the touch and pull of the handle. It involved the sense of vision, the sense of hearing, and the innate sensation of anticipation.

Winning and losing depended on a simple mechanism that included symbols (usually fruit of some kind, perhaps bars and/or sevens, and of course hearts, diamonds, clubs and spades, Fey's original choice) affixed to the three reels and a shaft. With ten symbols per reel, the machine was capable of a thousand possible combinations.

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