Any journey begins with a single step, and the journey to from the first mechanical slot machines to modern games with bonus events, multiple progressive jackpots, high-definition video and other bells and whistles has been longer than most.
We’ve had to step into stepper slots and hop up payouts through coin hoppers to punch our printed ticket to modern games.
Along the way, there have been milestones, stops on the journey that have been special in themselves. This week and next, let’s log a few stops on that journey to look at a special few milestones on the route to today’s slots..
The Liberty Bell: Charles Fey’s 1895 creation wasn’t the first coin-operated gaming device. There had been “slot machines” with large wheels at the front, alternating wedges of different colors. Players wagered on what color would be at the top when the wheel stopped.
But the Liberty Bell was a milestone as the first three-reel slot. The workings were mechanical, like clockwork, right up the alley of auto mechanic Fey. The result was a game that would be instantly recognizable to today’s players as a slot machine. Put an old color wheel game on display, and it raises curiosity about just what it is, what it does, how it works. Put the Liberty Bell on display, and you see a slot to drop coins in, a handle to pull and three spinning reels. Antique, yes, but a slot machine, definitely.
Money Honey: Slot machines continued to function like the Liberty Bell for decades. The symbols changed, and some had more symbols per reel, but the slots continued to be mechanical games. That changed in the mid-1960s when Bally Gaming introduced the first electromechanical games, with electrical components inside instead of gears and levers.
In addition to being electromechanical, Money Honey was the first slot machine to feature a coin hopper. Developed by engineers Frank Nicolaus and Bud Breitenstein at Bally in Chicago, the motor-driven hopper gave slot machines a large pool of coins rather than the capacity-challenged coin tubes of earlier machines. On the Money Honey, the hopper enabled payouts of up to 500 coins at a time. That enabled larger, more frequent payoffs, jump-starting slot machines toward their current position as the most popular games in today’s casinos.
Blazing 7s: The staying power of Bally’s progressive Blazing 7s is just stunning. Developed in the 1970s by Bally engineers Bob Manz and Terry Daly, Blazing 7s was designed as a rapid-hit jackpot game.
On a dollar machine, the top jackpot starts at $1,000. In the early days, Daly once told me, operators would put 10 or 20 games on the floor, and the jackpot would hit about every 15 minutes. That created positive feedback that drew, and continues to draw, players to the game. The rapid-hit feature not only increased player excitement, but the $1,000 start and frequency of jackpots meant it usually paid off before reaching the $1,200 threshold that requires IRS paperwork.
The virtual reel: The random number generator and virtual reel were developed by another Bally technician, Inge Telnaus, starting in the late 1970s. The patents were later acquired by International Game Technology, but the first RNG games were those in the Bally’s E1000 series, though they weren’t quite modern in all respects. That required the stepper motor, developed by the slot manufacturer Universal in the 1980s. Bally responded by converting its Blazing 7s game to use the RNG and virtual reel in conjunction with a stepper motor, and the next series of games, the Bally Series 2000, incorporated the stepper motor and gave a huge boost to the growing popularity of slots. One small stepper for a motor, one giant leap for slotkind.
Gambling author and columnist John Grochowski’s weekly newspaper column began at the Chicago Sun-Times and is now syndicated nationally. He also regularly makes TV and radio appearances about gambling. His column appears weekly. Look for John Grochowski at CasinoAnswerMan.com, on his Facebook page (http://tinyurl.com/7lzdt44) and Twitter (@GrochowskiJ).