So now that we’ve covered the RTP and how it works, lets have a little look into the
history of slots, and specifically those online to find out how this huge industry has
really taken off.
The humble slot machine has come a long way. From its origins as a simple mechanical
device built for the amusement of Americans little over a hundred years ago, it has
evolved into a multi-billion dollar worldwide industry. As well as this phenomenal
growth, the entire design of the machine has evolved: the original concept of mechanical
reels lives on, but the focus is now on computer technology and virtual games, rather
than real world casinos.
The very first slot machine is generally accepted to have been introduced in 1891 in New
York. This was a gambling machine which would have looked a bit like the one armed
bandits still seen in amusement arcades in seaside resorts across the UK. Each pull of
the lever cost the eager American a nickel. This would cause the five mechanical drums
to revolve. The reels on these drums contained different playing card values, with the
idea being to obtain a winning combination. Prizes were awarded according to similar
rules as getting a good hand at poker.
In those days, there was no pleasing tinkle of coins for winning players. There was no
mechanism for returning cash, so lucky punters were generally rewarded with whatever the
machine’s operator had to offer. In a typical bar, prizes would have been beer or
cigars. The scales were, as ever, tipped in favour of the House by the fact that the
five reels contained only 50 cards, reducing the chances of getting a big win. But the
practicalities of inventing a machine which could automatically pay out from the
countless different winning Poker combinations proved insurmountable.
Nevertheless, the concept proved very popular, with new designs spreading quickly.
Crucially, on the other side of the continent in San Francisco, Charles Fey devised a
similar machine which replaced all these card values with some more simple symbols, some
of which live on as symbols on many machines to this day, like the horseshoe and the
bell. The link to playing cards was maintained by the use of symbols for diamonds, heart
and spades. These machines were named the Liberty Bell, after the bell symbol on the
But the real advance was that the simplicity of the new symbols meant that Fey could
develop a machine which paid out automatically. With a jackpot of just 50 cents, no-one
got rich quick, but the new game was a huge success. By the turn of the century, Fey’s
own design had been copied by several competitors, and the machine was installed in
bars, bowling alleys and various houses of ill repute across the land. This despite
increasing attempts by the authorities to ban or restrict their use.
It was around this time that the traditional link to fruit arose. This is why slot
machines are still colloquially referred to as “fruit machines” in the UK to this day.
Flavoured chewing gum was often given as a prize by these early machines, and the
different flavours, such as water melon and the cherry were often used as symbols. The
still popular “BAR” sign was also introduced at this time, part of the logo of the Bell
Fruit Gum Company. This payment of food prizes was a frequently used attempt to try to
get round the anti-gambling legal restrictions put on these machines by many American
This one-armed bandit style mechanism remained the predominant design in slots for
around seventy years. It was not until the early 1960s that new technologies began to
revolutionise the slot machine. A new electro-mechanical design was popularised by the
US manufacturer Bally. Money Honey featured an automatic pay out system, and the use of
electronics meant that the mechanical arm could be replaced by the more modern buttons
we see on real world machines today.
Las Vegas casinos were the first to see the next development in slot technology around
ten years later, when the Fortune Coin Company’s introduced its video slot machine. This
seems very simple by modern standards, featuring some very basic computing power (this
was the mid-70s after all), with a pretty obvious colour TV monitor on top. But it was
this machine that really enabled the slot to develop into the multi-billion dollar
industry it represents today.
The use of virtual computer technology rather than mechanical reels enabled all sorts of
new features to be developed. The development of integrated circuits in the 1980s
enabled the introduction of further new innovations, such as extra bonus screens with
additional themes and games. Designs became ever more imaginative and exciting with more
detailed and realistic graphics.
Today of course, players can play slot machines from the comfort of their own homes, or
even on the move using their smart phones. Online slots were introduced barely twenty
years ago in the late 1990s, and with modern day superfast broadband and Wi-Fi, there is
no need for James Bond to don his tuxedo and order his favourite cocktail from a luxury
casino if he is after a crafty spin. He could satisfy his gaming desires with his
customised smart watch from Q branch, whilst communicating with his nemesis via an
encrypted chat room.
All this technology, plus the gradual relaxation of gambling restrictions has led to
phenomenal growth in the playing of slots in the United Kingdom, both in the real world
and online. Overall online casino revenue has increased from less than £5 billion in
2011 to over £7 billion in 2015 – an increase of around 50% in just four years. When you
add on the money spent on Fixed Odds Betting Terminals (FOBTs) in high street bookmakers
across the land, it’s clear that this is big business indeed.
The growth in online gaming has been even more phenomenal. In 2010, £86m was spent on
online slots in the UK. By 2014 (the latest year for which official figures are publicly
available) this had more than quadrupled to over £366m. Given that subsequent years have
seen the even more rapid rise of smartphone and tablet play, it is likely that the
billion pound mark will soon be reached, if it has not already been surpassed.
Indeed, play on mobiles and tablets has now overtaken old style desktop PC gaming. This
exponential growth has no doubt been fuelled by the ability to pay by phone bill,
ridding the busy “on the go” player of the need to register their personal financial
details before spinning the reels.
The slot machine remains a favourite with gamers across the world. In the United
Kingdom, there is no doubt that the relaxation of legislation since 2005 has been a
major contributor to the amazing rise in the popularity of the slot machine. Future
governments may well not be so relaxed about gaming in all its forms. In fact changes
are already starting to be made by governments. There is strict control over the
advertising of gambling campaigns. Shortly, a new tax will be introduced on deposit
bonuses. This could well mean the end of the large deposit bonus as has been seen in the
past. Could these changes mean the beginning of the end for the humble slot machine? It
seems unlikely with them proving so popular; in fact it means that the casual casino
player is likely to be in a better position through decreased wagering requirements.
Which can only mean one positive outcome, online slots players will be able to withdraw
their winnings far easier in the future.