Following the gold rush of 1848, California became a gambler’s paradise, and in no other area in the world was gambling carried on more openly or on a larger scale. Coin-operated gaming devices, which had been developed in the East in the late 1880s, enjoyed immense popularity in the saloons and cigar stores of San Francisco. Poker machines first appeared in the city by the bay as early as 1890.
In 1891, Sittman and Pitt of Brooklyn began to manufacture the first nationally known poker card machines, and by 1896 they could be found in virtually every one of the town’s 3,117 liscensed liquor establishments (one liscense for every 96 residents). A newspaper headline that year asked, “Who hasn’t dropped a nickel in the slot of these seductive little machines found in almost any place where men most do congregate?”
The machines maintained their enormous popularity until just before World War I. They would experience occasional resurgences in popularity until the 1980s when Video Poker mania struck.
Most of the early models, called drop card machines, employeed 50 cards on 5 drums, two cards short of a complete deck. Usually the cards missing were the Jack of Hearts and the Ten of Spades, cutting the possibility of a Royal Flush in half. Cards could also be rearranged on the reels to further reduce wins.
Award cards were often printed on both sides with seperate pay schedules for free drinks and cigars. Upon inserting a nickel and pushing the handle lever, the drums would spin and flip the cards. A winning hand could pay up to 100 cigars or drinks for a Royal Flush, 40 for a Straight Flush, and lesser awards for a pair of Kings or better.
In 1896, the New York Company and their agent, cigar dealer Charles Leonhardt, Jr., formed the Monarch Card Machine Company and quickly introduced two of the most prominent games of the day. The Monarch Brownie was the first machine to utilize a front bottom window to display all nickels played, and to hold the last one in sight. The latter feature was incorporated to discourage the use of counterfeit coins, a scourge that had menaced the industry since it’s inception.
Pioneer slot manufacturer, inventor and operator, Charles August Fey, was an intimate participant in the first half-century of the industry. His three-reel Liberty Bell, built in 1899, was the forerunner of more than a million bell slot machines that would be manufactured over the next half century.
In 1896 Fey had opened a factory at 406 Market Street, a location he proudly referred to as “the best-equipped shop west of the Mississippi.” Included in the lines he created here were the wheel machines, capable of a cash payout, and the prevelant card machines. Two of these 50-card poker machines were the 6 Way Paying Teller, using 5 rows of drop cards, and a companion model called The Duke, which had the cards mounted on 5 reels.
While the ultimate poker machine would be one capable of paying awards automatically, this was not mechanically feasable with five-reel machines. The Superior Court decision in December 1897 decreeing slot machines to be legal devices, opened the door for a cash paying poker machine. The following year Fey introduced the three-reel Card Bell. This was the first “bell” machine, a term which for many years was the common trade parlance for the three-reel slot machines used in casinos today.
The most difficult transitions from a five-reel poker machine to an automatic check-paying card machine was finding a method to read the reel symbols, creating the capability to accept both nickels and trade checks then separating them so that the former are diverted to the cash can and the tokens to the payout slide assembly. The automatic payouts on the Card Bell ranged from 2 to 20 coins, the highest being paid when the player was able to line up a simulated Royal Flush, Ace, King, and Queen in one suit. It is not known how many of these Card Bell’s were manufactured, but the only surviving machine (bearing serial number 5), which Charlie Fey rescued from the 1906 earthquake and fire, is today enshrined in his grandsons’ Liberty Belle Saloon and Restauraunt in Reno, Nevada.
The later Liberty Bell award cards had the poker payouts listed on the reverse side. These pay cards, used after the abolishment of check-pay in 1902, displayed the wins in free drinks. The same playing card symbols were displayed on machines manufactured by companies such as Mills and Caille until 1910.
The most important innovation in poker machines came in 1901 when Charles Fey added the “draw” feature. On the first pull, all five drums of cards began to spin. When they stopped, the player had the option of improving his hand by pushing corresponding buttons to hold selected cards. A second handle pull would spin the remaining cards and the final hand would appear. According to Fey, “When I built the original draw poker machine, I found it to be the most consistant money maker in counter games that I have known.” A later adaptation, Skill-Draw, “is the same game with all the old fascination, modernized to meet present day operating conditions.” This game became so successful between 1935 and 1941 that Fey gave his top Skill-Draw salesman a new LaSalle automobile.
The age of electronic games began in 1964 with the Nevada Electronic’s solid state “21” machines. By the mid-1970s, other manufacturers had built solid state 21, dice, roulette, horse racing, and poker machines. The most successful of these was the Dale Electronics’ Poker-Matic, which could be found in most Nevada casinos.
A milestone for electronic slots occurred in 1975 when the Fortune Coin Company introduced the first video bell slot machine in Las Vegas. The new machine received only mild acceptance by the casinos, which purchased it primarily as a novelty. It was not until it was converted to a draw poker machine that it’s potential became apparent. In 1976, Bally built a black and white video poker machine and eight months later the Fortune Coin Company countered with a color version of the popular game.
A new slot manufacturing giant, guided by the foresight and coin machine expertise of it’s founder, William “Si” Redd, emerged in 1975. After selling his Nevada Distributing Company to Bally Manufacturing, Redd arranged for $1.5 million to be subtracted from the purchase price so he could keep the rights to the electronic games, icluding the video slots. Redd’s new company, A-1 Supply, soon aquired pioneer video game manufacturer, Nutting Enterprises, and began building BlackJack and Draw Poker console machines. The company flourished, and William Redd changed it’s name to Sircoma (Si Redd Coin Machines). In 1981 Redd’s company underwent another name change, this time to IGT (International Game Technology).
The first century of coin operated game devices ended in 1990 with animated video poker machines becoming one of the hottest sensations of modern-day casinos.
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