The Evolution of Slot Machine Engineering

Photo by Linnaea Mallette / CC0

Slot machine technology has changed significantly over the years

The last 100 years have seen unprecedented technological advancements. From moon landings and computer science to mobile technology and transportation systems, our knowledge and understanding of technology continue to improve and expand each and every year. But it’s not just solutions and exploration that technology seeks to improve. It’s also the way we have fun!

The gaming industry is a multi-billion-dollar business, so it is no wonder that many huge technological advances are made in this area. Online gaming is one of the biggest entertainment markets in the world, hitting a net worth of $107 billion in 2017. Meanwhile, the global casino industry is forecasted to reach $130 billion in 2019. This is why it is essential for the gaming industry to stay ahead of the curve when it comes to the latest technological developments, and there is no better example of this than the evolution of slot machine technology.

A game of two beginnings

The invention of the slot machine is often a source of debate. Some argue that the first-ever slot machine was the Liberty Bell, invented by Charles Augustus Fey in 1887. The Liberty Bell allowed automatic pay-outs by using combinations of symbols on 3 reels. He used 5 simple symbols – hearts, horseshoes, spades diamonds, and a liberty bell to simplify the winning process, with the highest pay-out being awarded for 3 Liberty Bells.

However, some argue that Fey’s device came much later and that the first slot machine was invented by Sittman and Pitt in 1891. Their machine was loosely based on the rules of poker but using only 50 cards. The cards were attached to five spinning drums which would display a five-card poker hand after each spin. The better the hand, the more likely it was the player would win a pay-out. 

There were similarities between the technologies of both machines, but it was the Liberty Bell which was copied widely and installed in casinos all over the world. However, over the years it would become apparent that reel machines were limited in their pay-outs. As the number of combinations in reel machines was only cubic, this prevented manufacturers from being able to offer bigger jackpots.

Photo by Yamaguchi / CC BY-SA 3.0

Slots are now known for their flashing lights and electronic displays

The age of computerization

Although it is still possible to see traditional reel machines in some casinos, slot machine digital technology has developed from the old-style hand-crank machines to the electronic versions we see today. During the 1980s, technology developed to allow the use of microprocessors in the machines, which allowed manufacturers to assign different probabilities to each symbol on each reel, thereby enabling more control over pay-outs. When players inserted coins into the machine, they would either go straight into the owner’s cashbox or into the payout reservoir. The microprocessor monitored the flow of coins, so if the pay-out reservoir had filled up, the pay-outs became more generous, and if they were empty the pay-outs were less so.  This gave the machine good control of the odds and made the game much more exciting for players.

Video killed the mechanical reels

The introduction of video technology meant that mechanical reels and moving parts were obsolete. With a lack of mechanical constraints, the video slot machine was able to offer a much wider range of possibilities. Video machines were able to display 5 reels rather than the usual 3, which meant that the machine could give odds of 300 million to 1 against. This made the game hugely appealing to slot machine players, as the potential jackpot could be far more than anything ever won on a traditional machine. Video machines also introduced the idea of bonus games, which would encourage the player to continue playing until they reached the bonus level in the hope they would have the opportunity to win back any losses made while playing.

Video machines are able to provide a much more exciting game due to the use of pseudo-random number generators, also known as PRNGs. These generators are constantly creating a sequence of random numbers and once the machine is in play, the most recent of these sequences is used.

Slot machines have come a long way since the 19th century. Traditional hand-cranked mechanisms have given way to flashy videos and fast-paced betting, proving that gaming technology is constantly evolving and improving every year.

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