It All Started With… The History of the Jackpot Slot

9 min readJun 23, 2021


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

Welcome to another instalment of our series ‘It All Started With’, where we look at the history of casino games. This time round, we’ll be going over the history of the jackpot slot.

‘It all started in 1916, when Mills Novelty Company created the first jackpot…’

Unlike the other games we have covered, the history of the jackpot slot isn’t unknown to us. So, thankfully, we’re able to give you the true origin of the game.

an antique jackpot slot console
Image by Igor Ovsyannykov from Pixabay

Interestingly, jackpot slots haven’t always offered cash prizes in the millions. As you might expect, the original jackpots weren’t even all that big, offering maybe a couple of hundred at most.

So, how did we get to the point where providers can offer millions in cash prizes? And what about the original jackpots? Well, read on to find out! But before we go into the history of the game, there’s something we’ll need to tackle first…

What Do Jacks & Pots Have to Do With Each Other? On the Origin of the Word “Jackpot”

It would be a shame if we didn’t go over the interesting etymology of the word jackpot, which can also give us some insights into the nature of the game. At the same time, the history of the slot machine is part and parcel of the history of the jackpot slot.

We’ve already gone over the history of slot machines in this series. Thus, we highly encourage you to read our article on the slot machine as it will help you make better sense of the history of the jackpot slot. Now, without further ado, let’s dive into the sea of etymology together.

The etymology of the word jackpot actually take us away from the slot machine and to another well-known game in the casino: poker. This is because the first usage of the word jackpot was in relation to an old and now-obsolete rule in draw poker. It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly when this rule came into existence though.

The first recorded usage of the word in reference to poker seems to be from 1881. However, the Encyclopaedia Brittanica (specifically, the 11th edition from 1911) notes that the jackpot rule was introduced at around 1870. It seems that there’s no real way of confirming this date.

The rule itself seems to only have a tenuous connection to the current meaning of the word, which is a large cash prize in a game or competition. However, the connection becomes much clearer once you analyse the rule for what it is, and the implications it had on the game. The rule wasn’t in observed in every round of draw poker, but it came into effect after a number of dealings.

There were other conditions that caused the rule to apply but they’re unimportant for the scope of our article. Anyway, when the rule did apply, the game still started in the same way: each player contributed to the pot and was a dealt a hand. However, the game could not start until a player receive a hand of jacks or better.

If no one received such a hand, then the players are dealt new hands and they would have to contribute further to the pot. This would carry on until the required hand was received. Once a player received a hand of jacks or better, then the pot was opened and the game could truly commence.

The player in possession of the hand that opened the pot (the so-called “opener”) would then increase the pot to an amount he desires, as long as it was within the limit. The other players would then have to call, fold, or, if they wished to, raise. New cards are then dealt to the players and the opener begins the betting.

Afterwards, the game proceeds as normal. Thus, we can see that the jackpot itself was this accumulative ante that every player around the poker table would chip in to until someone received at least a hand of jacks. Hence the name “jack-pot”: jack (a reference to the required cards) and pot (the total amount of money bet in a single round).

From Poker Rule to Large Cash Prize: Thoughts on the Shift in Meaning Of the Word “Jackpot”

However, how does the above fit in with the meaning of “large cash prize”? Naturally, it would sometimes be the case that the pot would increase significantly, especially after several rounds of nobody receiving the required hand, or when players decide to raise the pot. As a consequence, the winner of the jackpot would win a rather significant amount of money.

It could easily be the case, then, that the word “jackpot” started slowly shifting in meaning to mean “large cash prize won in a game of poker”. Then when the rule fell out of favour, the meaning of the word “jackpot” continued shifting to solely mean “large cash prize won in a game”.

There seems to be no real way of knowing how the word “jackpot” was transferred from draw-poker to slot machines. Whilst the shift in meaning can be easily intuited without the need for documented evidence, how the term came to be applied to the slot machine is still a bit of a mystery.

However, it might be safe to assume that “jackpot” became gambler’s slang for a substantial money reward that can be won during a game. Then this slang word was simply applied to the slot machine’s jackpot functionality at the time of its invention by its inventor.

By all accounts, it was this application of the word “jackpot” to the slot machine that truly established the current meaning of the word. Then the word was simply reapplied to other cash prizes won from other games: from lotteries to scratch cards to video poker.

This brings us to the end of our etymological journey as now we’re in familiar territory. However, we now have to go back to the past to uncover the invention of the jackpot slot.

But How Did Slot Machines End up with a Jackpot? Looking at the First Ever Jackpot Slot

It wasn’t very long after the invention of the slot machine that the jackpot mechanism was applied to slots. In fact, according to Encyclopaedia Brittanica, the jackpot functionality was first invented in 1916 by the Mills Novelty Company. This means that jackpot slots were invented only a little more than 20 years after the invention of the slot machine itself.

The original jackpot mechanic was nothing more than a combination of symbols which caused the machine to spew out all of the coins it held inside. If you think about it, this could be considered as a rudimentary progressive jackpot as the maximum prize depended on how many coins were in the machine at the time.

Of course, this means that the maximum prize is never the same and changes according to how many people played the machine but didn’t win the jackpot — exactly how a progressive jackpot works. It seems, however, that jackpot slots had stuck to this mechanic for much of their history.

Thus, there wasn’t much in the way of innovation when it came to jackpot slots until 1984 when Bally began improving on its slot machines, nearly 70 years after the creation of the first jackpot mechanic. When Bally began expanding the number of symbols and reels on its machine, the consequence was fairly decreased odds.

To offset this, Bally hired a computer engineer to increase the size of the jackpot — incidentally, the engineer created the first random number generator (RNG) at the same time, giving us the first slots with truly random results.

The next innovations would come only 2 years later — in 1986. And actually, this year would produce 2 major milestones in the history of the jackpot slot: firstly, it was the official introduction of progressive jackpot slots to large casinos, which naturally gave rise to modern progressive jackpot slot games as we know.

The first modern progressive jackpot slot machine was Megabucks, which was developed by International Game Technology (IGT).

The second innovation would be the development of the first ever shared jackpots, which were capable of giving out payouts that were unequalled up until then. Since slots were upgraded from mechanical devices to electromechanical machines, developers were able to exploit this to everyone’s advantage.

In fact, electrical systems were developed to link jackpot slot machines together, meaning that the jackpot could be pooled from bets across multiple slots. Shared jackpots were then continuously improved upon to not only connect slot machines in a brick-and-mortar casino but also slots across multiple casinos.

The next step, then, was simply to create online jackpot slots and also to connect jackpot slots across multiple online casinos, as is the case today. Of course, this had to await the dawn of the internet and the opening of the first online casinos — which was in 1996. After that, it wasn’t too long before the first jackpot slot.

In fact, in 1998, Microgaming released Cash Splash, which can be considered as the world’s first online progressive jackpot slot. From then on, jackpot slots have been constantly worked on to provide us with the immense variety of titles that are available nowadays.

a row of jackpot slot machines in a casino
Photo by Amit Lahav on Unsplash

What Led to Giving Us the First Jackpot?

There’s no telling what actually led Mills Novelty Company to come up with the jackpot mechanic. However, we can take a couple of guesses: the most obvious reason is to attract new players to play. What’s more enticing than the prospect of landing a massive win that will make you rich in a matter of moments?

Yet, let’s not get ahead of ourselves: the first ever jackpots weren’t all that impressive. In fact, they were far from the life-changing amounts that modern jackpot slots can pay out. However, we’re sure that they offered a rather nice amount by the standards of those days, which could easily entice anyone.

Moreover, the need for variety might have also influenced the creation of jackpot slots. If you play the same thing over and over again, it will tend to get boring and some variety will definitely spice up the experience. Hence, the jackpot could have also been added as a way to make slots more interesting for players.

How Did the Jackpot Slot Become Popular?

The popularity of the jackpot slot is intimately intertwined with that of the regular slot machine. Therefore, if you’d like to know about the reasons as to why the slot machine became so popular, then we highly suggest reading our article on the origins of the slot machine.

a row of jackpot slots in a casino
Image by D Thory from Pixabay

However, it’s easy to see just why jackpot slots became as popular as they did. Not only did they ride over the popularity of slot machines — which, at the time that the jackpot mechanic was created, were already popular — but they offered something different to regular slots: the jackpot itself.

The fact that these slot machines offered greater payouts than regular slots would have surely served to boost their popularity. All in all, jackpot slots had two things going for them: they offered the simple-but-quick fun that normal slot machines offered but a maximum prize that was unmatched by other slots.

The Future of the Jackpot Slot

It’s hardly likely that jackpot slots will be going anywhere. If anything, we’re almost certain that jackpot slots are here to stay for a very long time. Moreover, we firmly believe that slots will continue to be worked upon to include more features and maybe even to provide a totally new form of jackpot.


It all started with Mills Novelty Company’s implementation of a mechanic that granted players all the coins held within a slot machine. That was in 1916, and it was nearly 70 years later, in 1984, when Bally undertook an enterprise to increase its jackpots as a way to offset decreased odds.

The lower odds came as a result of more symbols and reels being added to the slots. 2 years later, in 1986, progressive jackpot slots were first introduced into large casinos, and slots were also linked together so that the jackpot can be pooled from bets played across multiple slots.

More than a decade later, and after the first true online casino in 1996, came the first online progressive slot. This was when Microgaming developed Cash Splash, which was in 1998.

From then on, jackpot slots were continuously improved upon to give us the modern-day games we know and love. Even now, jackpot slots are continuously being developed and worked upon, so who knows what new jackpot slots will exist in a few years’ time? Only time will tell!

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:




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