Charles Fey did much in a life that took him to five countries as he worked on electrical, telgraphic and telephonic devices.
But today, he’d remembered mainly in his family history if not for one key creation: Fey invented the Liberty Bell, the first recognizably modern slot machine.
The Liberty Bell had three reels, a slot to drop coins in and an arm on the side to start the reels spinning it was the first “one-armed bandit.” If you put the Liberty Bell on a pedestal and displayed it in a modern casino, it would be instantly recognized as an antique slot machine.
In 1895, when Fey developed his machine, the Liberty Bell was new, different, but no one yet could have understood how it would revolutionize gambling or envision a day of legal casinos across the United States and around the world with millions of players flocking to their favorite slots.
Fey was born in Germany’s Bavaria region in 1862 and named August – he would change the name to Charles after he moved to the United States because he didn’t like the nickname “Gus.”
As a teenager, Fey worked for a farm tool manufacturer, getting his first taste of the skills that would lead to his lifelong work as a mechanic.
Seeking opportunities not available in Bavaria, Fey moved to France in 1877. There, he worked for company that made intercom equipment. After close to three years in France, he moved again, this time to the United Kingdom where he worked for a manufacturer of nautical equipment.
When he was 23, he would move to the United States, eventually settling in San Francisco. There he would stay for the rest of his life except for a brief sojourn in Mexico to be in the heat during a bout with tuberculosis. After his return from Mexico, he married his sweetheart Marie Volkmar, and they would have three daughters and a son.
Fey was employed by Electric Works, an electrical engineering and manufacturing company. He and a partner, Theodore Holtz, left to form their own company to manufacture telephone, telegraph and electric equipment.
So Fey was well acquainted with what made mechanical devices tick when he created the Liberty Bell.
Before the Liberty Bell, there were coin-operated gambling devices, but none looked or played like Fey’s three-reel inspiration.
There were color wheel games. A large wooden cabinet housed a vertical wheel that was divided into different colored spaces. You’d bet on colors by dropping coins in a slot – if you bet on red and the wheel landed on a red space, you’d win.
Another popular way to play was the poker machine developed by Sittman and Pitt in Brooklyn, New York. The machine contained five drums with card images on the outside edges. Again, you’d drop a coin in a slot to start play, and if the cards formed a winning hand, you’d win.
The Sittman and Pitt machine and other poker games were based on true odds of poker, but often had only 50 cards instead of 52. The 10 of spade and Jack of hearts would be removed so there could be no royal flush in those suits, while also reducing the number of other winning hands such as straights and flushes.
Against that backdrop, Fey rolled out the Liberty Bell.
Unlike modern slot games, which often have 10 or more different symbols, the Liberty Bell had only five – diamonds, spades, hearts, horseshoes and the Liberty Bell. With repeats, there were 10 total symbols on each reel. But on each reel, there was only one Liberty Bell.
That makes it easy to calculate the odds of hitting the big jackpot for lining up three Liberty Bells. There was a 1 in 10 chance of landing a Bell on any one reel, so the odds of three in a row were 1 in 10x10x10, or 1 in 1,000.
How much was that big payoff? Ten nickels, the U.S. coins worth five cents apiece, so 50 cents. That’s half a U.S. dollar.
Bigger jackpots would have to wait for other inventions to pave the way for bigger bets as well as bigger odds against winning.
Other manufacturers took up the challenge almost immediately. Herbert Mills manufacturing in Chicago produced its own three-reel slots in the early 1900s and was the first to use fruit symbols. Bally Manufacturing – later Bally Gaming and then Bally Technologies – joined the party in the 1930s and later advanced the technology by inventing electromechanical slots.
International Game Technology in Nevada made huge, multimillion-dollar jackpots possible on three-reel slots with its adoption of the random number generator and virtual reel in the 1980s. Aristocrat Technologies in Australia and WMS Gaming in Chicago did pioneering work on video slots that led to the games we love best today.
But all those later developments have roots in one man’s inspiration, and those roots take us all the way back to 1895 and Charles Fey’s San Francisco workshop.
In recent years, online slots games have gone mainstream. The increasing liberalization of gambling legislation means that players in many countries have access to classic slots, video slots, and progressive jackpot slots games.
Thanks to classic games like the Liberty Bell, slots are the most popular attractions at bricks and mortar casinos and online casinos alike. Players can blend skill, strategy, and superstition to play and enjoy great slots.
It’s all thanks to one man’s inspiration, and those roots take us all the way back to 1895 and Charles Fey’s San Francisco workshop.