Close but no cigar: How the first slot machine started out

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May 4th, 2021

The extraordinary graphics, sound, and gameplay of modern slots couldn’t be any more different from the clanky contraption from which they all developed.

The first recognized slot machine was developed by Sittman and Pitt in New York in 1891, cropping up in enterprising saloons, but it looked nothing like any game you might play now.

It was rather a rudimentary machine, made up of five drums, each containing a set of playing cards. Players inserted a coin and pulled a lever to spin the drums, revealing one card from each.

The aim was to make a good poker hand to win a prize. But because there was no way of paying out a cash prize from this primitive machine, the player had to call over the staff to show their winning combination.

To get around antiquated gambling laws in some states at the time, players could not win cash prizes. Instead, this five-drum machine dished out prizes in... cigars.

The smoky practice of "giving away" cigars was also later used by stalls at fairgrounds and is where the expression close but no cigar originated – you nearly made a good poker hand, but that’s not good enough to win a prize.

If you were lucky enough to make a poker hand, prizes ranged from two cigars for a pair of kings or aces up to a lung-busting 100 cigars for a Royal Flush. Players may or may not have been aware that the house edge was in play then as the jack of hearts and ten of spades were removed from each drum to reduce the chances of a player hitting a Royal Flush!

The Liberty Bell

The slot machine took a big leap around 1895 when San Francisco mechanic Charles Fey invented the Liberty Bell game. It was a three-reel game that came with the benefit of being able to pay out prizes automatically. Players pulled the lever and had to line up three matching symbols from the five on offer: horseshoes, diamonds, spades, hearts, and the Liberty Bell itself.

Fey tried out a test machine in a local saloon, and it was so popular he quit his job and turned to full-time production.

Some states prohibited gaming for money, and so different prizes were added. A popular one was chewing gum, and in these games, symbols became fruits to reflect the flavored gum prizes on offer. Those fruity symbols are still popular today, as is the term fruit machine. And, of course, the Bell can also still be found in many modern slot games.

The march of Technology

The basic concept of slot gameplay changed little over the following decades, with only the appearance and reliability keeping up with the times. It wasn’t until 1964 that Bally’s introduced the first fully electric machine, called Money Honey.

As digital technology became more advanced, the first use of video was a machine in 1976 that used an adapted 19 inch Sony TV as its display screen.

Finally, as the internet exploded, so online games drove the fast development of what we are used to today: complex video slots with large amounts of gameplay elements (bonus rounds) and incredible sound. A world away from spinning five drums to make a poker hand and win a cigar.

Try Slots at TwinSpires Casino

You’ll find a full selection of slot games to try at TwinSpires Casino. Thankfully, they are all modern and exciting, and you can’t win any cigars. But you can win lots of cash, with jackpot slots among the selection.

Sign up for your TwinSpires account today, claim your welcome bonus, and head to the slots section to spin your way to success. Good luck!