These days, when you play slot machines (also called fruit machines and one-armed bandits) either online or off, you'll encounter a huge variety of different symbols. On-line slot developers in particular are becoming ever-more inventive with the images they place on the reels. These can be anything from cartoon characters to Greek gods, and generally reflect the theme of the game.
But there are some symbols, such as bars and fruit, that seem universal and can be found on machines across the globe. So why are they used and where did they come from? Here we’ll take a look back into the mists of time to discover the origins of these familiar figures.
Slot machines as we know them were invented in San Francisco in 1894 by a German-born engineer, Charles August Fey. His original machine, built in his basement, was the first of its kind with 3 reels (previously 5 was the standard).
The following year he built the 4-11-44, based on a lottery game where that combination of numbers had the most chance of paying out. This proved such a hit that Fey quit his day job at the Western Electric Company to concentrate on building slots. He opened a factory in Market street in 1896 and the first product off the assembly lines was the Card Bell, a 3-reel machine, featuring card suits that would line up to form a poker hand.
Fruit machines have evolved since then, but card icons are still featured on most of them. These are usually limited to the Ace, King, Queen, Jack, Ten and Nine or just the suits, Hearts, Spades, Clubs, and Diamond.
We also owe these symbols to Charles Fey. After the success of the Card Bell, his next machine was the Liberty Bell. This was to become the most iconic one-armed bandit of all time and, thanks to The Great Earthquake of San Francisco in 1906, now one of the rarest).
Not only did it have the highest jackpot for the times, a whole 50 cents, it was also the first fully-automated slot, paying out winnings directly. Before this, winnings had to be collected from whoever was in charge of the machines, usually the bartender as they were generally located in saloons.
It also included three new icons, a cracked liberty bell, a horseshoe and a star. The horseshoe represents luck and while it still appears on the reels occasionally, it was gradually replaced by 7 or triple 7s. The star is not as common as it once was but still pops up occasionally but the Liberty Bell has remained ubiquitous to this day.
The reason why Fey’s original symbols started to appear on all slots was that at the time gambling was illegal so he was unable to patent his invention. This left his competitors free to copy as much as they liked of his designs, which they did with great enthusiasm. It also led to the appearance of some of the other slot symbols that we are familiar with today.
By 1909 there were an estimated 3,300 machines in the city of San Francisco. This did not sit well with the clergy and the moral crusaders of the time so they pressured the city authorities to ban them altogether. In order to get around this ban, producers started making machines with no payout slot and called them vending machines.
The Industry Novelty Company introduced the fruit symbols on their machines to represent various flavours of gum and even built a few that actually dispensed it. The idea was copied by the Mills Novelty Company, who added a picture of a packet of gum. This quickly morphed into the familiar bar symbol which we all know and love today.
Of course, as we said earlier, nowadays, thanks to the power of technology, slot symbols can be, and are, almost everything. In fact, the only limits are the imagination of the designer. And here at AUSlots, we have some of the wildest slot games you’ll ever see, not just in terms of symbols, but with extra features, wild symbols, bonuses, megaways slots and most importantly, real money payouts so give them a spin today.