It All Started With… The History of Slot Machines, or How Slots Became the Most Popular Casino Game

7 min readMar 8, 2021

It All Started With… the series that explains the beginnings of gambling, powered by Betiton™

Welcome to our series called ‘It All Started With…’ Here we delve into the history of casino games. Our first entry in the series traces the history of slot machines. Who doesn’t know of this extremely popular casino game?

“It all started with Sittman & Pitt in the 19th century…”

But how did the slot machine become as popular as it is? And who was the creator behind this ingenious device? Let’s find out together, shall we? Join us on our adventure to uncover the humble beginnings of slots.

The History of the Online Slot: The First Machines

The faint beginnings in the history of slot machines take us all the way back to the end of the 19th century — specifically, to 1891. It was in that year that the Brooklyn-based company Sittman & Pitt developed a machine that historians consider to be the predecessor of the modern slot machine.

However, far from working like slots as we know them, it instead held 5 drums — which showed 50 card faces — and used poker combinations, so that a player needed to land a poker hand to win, making it closer to video poker than slots as we know them. This poker machine proved incredibly popular but there was a significant problem with it: there was no direct payment system.

the console of a slot machine
Photo by DEAR on Unsplash

Since there were many possible combinations, it was fairly difficult to judge the value of one combination over another. Instead, establishment owners would offer prizes depending on what their establishment offered; for example, they might have offered a winning player a free drink for landing a straight flush.

Whilst that was happening, a Bavarian-born mechanic living in San Francisco was also working on a similar machine. Charles Augustus Fey invented the first slot machine in around 1895, which was an instant hit. In fact, so extraordinarily popular was Fey’s invention, that he upgraded his workshop into a fully fledged factory not too long after releasing his machine.

He solved the payment problem by moving away from poker combinations and instead using combinations of symbols (horseshoes, spades, hearts, diamonds, and the famous Liberty Bell). Moreover, he further simplified the machine by using 3 reels instead of 5 drums, effectively creating the first slot machine.

an antique slot machine on a wooden desk
Photo by Valerie Everett

The following years saw a fair bit of turbulence for Fey, especially because other companies realised the potential gold mine that was the slot machine and also wanted a slice of the action. In a nutshell, Fey had enjoyed very little competition in the years following his invention, and also favourable gambling laws.

However, other companies started creating their own machines, and Fey ended up being beaten at his own game by a company known as “Mills Novelty Company”, owned by Herbert Stephen Mills. After being out-competed, Fey faded into obscurity.

The turbulence, then, shifted to gambling in general as American legislators came down hard on gambling: essentially, they outlawed slot machines. Well, more accurately, slot machine games could no longer pay out money. To not lose out on the profits of having these machines, proprietors instead started awarding candy.

In spite of this, court officials still deemed these machines illegal simply because they encouraged gambling anyway. However, these laws didn’t do much to deter these machines from growing in popularity. In fact, with the advent of the prohibition and the opening of speakeasies, these machines continued to thrive in these illicit establishments, reaching unprecedented levels of popularity.

Then, in 1931, Nevada legalised gambling and the popularity of the slot machine exploded once again. Companies were quick to move to Nevada to supply machines to start-up casinos. However, it wasn’t just popular in Nevada: after the Second World War, slot machines emigrated out of the States and starting picking up popularity around the globe.

Up until the 60s, slots were still largely physical machines. However, in 1963 the now-defunct company Bally created the first electromechanical machine called “Money Honey”. This machine ran on electricity, had various sound effects, an automatic payout system, and a multi-coin payout of up to 500 coins.

This game also proved incredibly popular, and Bally continued improving on their machine, adding reels, starting to offer a jackpot system, and implementing the very familiar random number generator that’s still used today. The next innovation in slot machines would be in 1976, when Fortune Coin Co. produced the first ever video slot machine. This game still used a physical cabinet but it had a mounted Sony Trinitron monitor as a display.

Then, in 1996, WMS Industries developed the first video slot that offered a bonus round that utilised a different screen from the original one; the slot was known as “Reel ’Em In”. Finally, when casinos made the shift to go online, video slots soon followed, and slot developers were quick to start providing online slot games.

How Do You Even Come Up With That? Why the Slot Machine Was Invented

In the 1880s, coin-operated mechanical gambling machines were already quite popular. However, rather than actual gambling devices, these machines were little more than toys and novelties that establishments would have available for customers to use. Despite that, patrons would gamble on them anyway, and they proved popular nonetheless.

But how did we go from toys to gambling machines? Since Sittman & Pitt’s machine combined poker and a gambling machine — two gambling activities that were already very popular when Sittman & Pitt made this machine — it seems like it was the next logical step to create a gambling machine that worked off a popular gambling game.

By all accounts, it seems like the slot machine was invented as a way of riding on the intense popularity of these toyish gambling machines. It’s very safe to say that the invention of the slot machine proved extremely successful!

From Fruit Dispenser to Global Sensation: How Did the Slot Machine Become So Popular?

It’s easy to see why slots gained so much popularity. In the early days, it was nothing more than a simple and fun way to pass the time playing with money. It was a game that, unlike card games, didn’t require players to memorise so many rules and combinations.

Furthermore, it didn’t require them to also hone their skills to be able to win, as is the case with poker. This simplicity plays a large part in the enjoyment of the slot machine: nowadays, any beginner can just mosey on to an online casino, load up an online slot, and begin playing after a couple of minutes.

However, that’s only the tip of the slot machine iceberg: modern slots games often offer many different features that make them far more enjoyable, including bonus rounds and special symbols. Finally, they also come in a variety of themes! In fact, you can find slots online about mythology, treasure hunting, science fiction, dragons, robots — you name it, you’ll find it!

The Future of the Slot Machine

It seems that the popularity of the slot machine is not going to abate any time soon. In fact, innovations in the world of the slot machine haven’t stopped with the switch to online slot games. New game mechanics are constantly being produced by top-of-the-line software suppliers such as NetEnt, Big Time Gaming, and Microgaming.

We can mention mechanics like Megaways slots, 243 Ways, All Ways Pay slots, and the very recent InfiniReels mechanic. Of course, these are only a handful of innovative mechanics, and we firmly believe that the innovative minds of the industry leaders will continue to produce exciting new features and revolutionise online slots as we know them.


As you can see it all started with a simple toy, an idea, and a German mechanic working in his humble workshop. This machine has come a long way from the toylike, rudimentary devices of the 19th century — from Sittman & Pitt’s 5-drum, poker-based machine, to Fey’s fully functional, 3-reel slot, to Bally’s electromechanical Money Honey, and so on.

Casino slots nowadays have a myriad of spectacular features that set them far apart from the first ever slot machines. Collapsing reels, wild symbols, free spins, expanding wilds — in short, slots have changed a lot and are continuing to change. In fact, providers are even making the move towards VR (virtual reality) slots, with the first VR slot already having been developed!

We know that the story of the slot machine is far from reaching a conclusion but only time will what the future of this fantastic game holds… who knows? Maybe in a few years’ time, we’ll have a totally new slot format that completely revolutionises the game.

In the meantime, join us on our next entry where we’ll be going into the history of another highly popular casino game!

Other Articles in Our Series It All Started With…

Curious to know more about the history of gambling? You can find out more by reading our other articles in our series It All Started With… which you can find below:




Online gaming platform based in Malta. Find us at