The Evolution of Slot Machine Symbols


How have the symbols used by gambling machines changed during the years between their invention and the modern-day world of online slots? It’s surprising, but nonetheless interesting, to discover just how few steps there are in this aspect of slot machine design, considering how much has changed in other areas.

The earliest forms of machine gambling

In the early 1800s, many saloons in the United States featured crude “horse racing” machines – essentially just novelties designed to amuse the punters at the bar as they knocked back their next bourbon. Those machines had nothing in common with a modern slot machine, but through complex systems of gears and mechanics, they could produce a random result each time a coin was inserted into the machine.

It wasn’t long before punters gathered at the bar began betting against each other on which horse would win the next race. Savvy saloon owners spotted an opportunity to organize the betting themselves, allowing them to collect a small profit from the proceeds.

The quest to create an automated machine

In 1862, a man named Charles August Fey was born in Bavaria. Charles was a smart man who trained as a mechanic at a very young age, which was not uncommon at the time. Whilst most children ended up performing dangerous and menial jobs such as sweeping chimneys, Charles wanted more from his life.

He first moved to France before spending a short time in Great Britain. Everyone was talking about the “new world” around this time – America, the land of opportunity. After learning that he had an uncle living in New Jersey on the East Coast, Charles set off to begin his new life in America.

The first symbols

By 1895, Fey had created the first modern slot machine which he called the “Card Bell”. With five reels filled with ten different playing card symbols, the Card Bell could produce a wide variety of different poker hands, requiring the use of a pay table for the first time. Fey hadn’t quite worked out all the kinks just yet – there were so many possible winning combinations that figuring out a way to pay the player automatically was far beyond the capabilities of 19th century technology.

The next step

Despite requiring the intervention of the saloon owner to arrange a payout each time the Card Bell was played, the game was extremely popular. Fey left his job and set up a workshop to produce more of his machines, but he knew that for the concept to really take off it would need to be fully automated.

He achieved this just two years later with the creation of the “Liberty Bell”, which did away with two of the reels, dropped the playing full playing cards in favor of simple hearts, spades, and diamonds, and added two more symbols – a bell and a horseshoe – which would award the highest payouts.

Charles suffered a setback in 1909, when his slot machine devices were banned in the state of San Francisco. It was too late, however – the cat was out of the bag, people absolutely loved these machines, and as we understand all too well today, wherever there is a demand, someone will step in to supply it.

Fruits replace suits

The success of Charles’s machines did not go unnoticed – companies sprung up all over the Western United States, mostly copying Fey’s original design with little regard for the morality of this behavior. One competitor named Herbert Mills called his machines the “Operator’s Bell” and included a chewing gum vending attachment – an early example of cross-marketing.

Herbert made a profit on each sale of gum from his machines, so decided to swap out the symbols used on the Liberty Bell for symbols which were instead based on various fruits. The gum sold in the machines was produced by Bell-Fruit, so Herbert also kept the bell symbol that had previously become well-known, as well as a symbol representing a stick of chewing gum. Other manufacturers who weren’t using the chewing gum vending accessory replaced that stick of gum with a simple “Bar” symbol, which is still commonly used today.

It’s interesting to wonder, had Herbert never decided to offer chewing gum alongside his gaming machines, would fruits have ever ended up becoming synonymous with gambling machines?

Progress slows down

When America entered the first world war, slot machine development took a back seat until the Great Depression in the 1930s. All forms of gambling increased in popularity during that decade, as depression gripped much of America and the dream of winning large amounts of money was all many people had to cling on to.

Despite this, the machines themselves remained pretty much the same for several more years –

Fraud & The switch to video-based slots

In 1963, Bally created the first fully electromechanical slot machine, but fraudsters quickly began to find ways to exploit these devices. Early slot machine cheating is far beyond the scope of this article, but there is a wealth of information online about the techniques crooks developed to cheat the machine owners out of their money – from tying coins to a string, exploiting metal components using magnets, and specialized devices such as the monkey paw and light wand, it was clear that something had to be done.

Video slots usher in the era of custom symbols and themed machines

The first video slots appeared in 1975, and finally gave the designers of these machines the flexibility to use any types of symbols they wished on their reel strips. The complexity of pay tables and math models soon began to increase exponentially, and casinos were soon filled with hundreds of truly different looking games.

Slot manufacturers loved to add their own company logo to the reels as a “jackpot” symbol during this time, and licensing deals began to be struck, allowing slots based on popular movies and TV shows to be created for the first time.

It was around this time that machines reverted to the previous five-reel format, and numbers returned to the reels, too – harking back to the days of the “Card Bell”. Bonus features and progressive jackpots were devised to attract players to specific casino properties, and games featuring the earlier “fruit” symbols began to be seen as the lower-quality product compared to the bespoke symbols used by the latest and greatest machines.

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