The History of Slot Machines
There is a special reason why playing slots is so much fun. Sure, the bells, whistles and flashing colors are exciting. And of course, who can forget the incredible feeling of victory as the triple 7’s light up the machine for a win!
There is more to the story than just the fun of playing slots. Few people would guess that the modern slot machine was made by a industrial mechanic, and even fewer know how he turned a few dreadful spins into a winning streak.
Ever Heard of Charles Fey?
Our story starts in the early 1860’s. Charles Fey was born the youngest of 16 (wow!) children in the small Village of Vohringen, Bavaria. At the budding age of 14 Charlie spent a summer with his brother working in a farm tool factory in Munich. It was here that we suspect Charles discovered his innate abilities with mechanical devices.
Faced with the burden of living in an overstuffed and overly strict household, Charlie left home at 15. His plan, to save enough money for an easy passage to America. Over the next five years Charles worked for equipment manufacturers and instrument makers in France and England until finally racking up enough money to board the boat of opportunity to America.
A Brave New World
As luck would have it, Charles had relatives in New York, but shortly after his arrival they went back to Germany leaving Charlie alone in the big city to fend for himself. Having no relatives within 6,000 miles, He decided to continue his American dream in the warmer climates of San Francisco.
Due to his natural talents, Charles was able to land a few jobs as a mechanist in San Fransisco, and was making a life for himself in the warmer climates of the west, but little did he know that a great battle was right around the corner.
Charles was diagnosed with tuberculosis in 1885, and was given a little under a year to live. Being only 25, alone, and having no family close by made his situation even worse. His only options where to let the illness take over, or push through and cure himself.
Against all odds, and after a very hard rehabilitation period, Charles Fey overcame his disease, and not only that but landed a new job at the California Electric Works company. A job that would surely guarantee more money and a better life for himself.
The Fruits of his Labor
Having all that new money meant a better life of course, but it also meant more dates. Charles met Marie Volkmar, a local Californian, and married her soon after. Charles and Marie had 4 children (three daughters and a son).
Being influenced by the popular “nickel-in-the-slot” machines found all over San Fransisco, Fey started tinkering in his workshop on a new type of fun machine utilizing three spinning wheels. Unfortunately this machine was just built as a hobby, and its day in the sun had not yet arrived.
It was around this time that Fey and a co-worker Theodore Holtz started to secretly make plans to start their own business that would directly compete with California Electric Works. Feeling that they had more talent and a better business model, Charles and Theodore opened their doors on the same block as a slot machine manufacturing company, and eventually manufactured parts for these machines.
In 1895, Charles Fey moved his family to Berkeley and started tinkering in his basement on a new and improved version of his earlier three wheeled slot machine. This machine, called the 4-11-44, was based on a popular lottery game at the time called “Policy.” This new device still retained it’s three spinning numbered dials, but was set inside of a long, narrow cabinet, and featured a top paying combination (which was 4-11-44, of course).
Feeling a bit enthusiastic about his new invention, Charles worked out a deal with a local Saloon, and the “4-11-44” machine was released to the public.
The Big Hit
Not only was the machine a huge success, but the demand for the machine grew to other saloons in the area, and soon Charles was manufacturing them full time. 1986 Fey formed a slot machine factory of his own on Market Street in San Fransisco, and left his share of the electrical equipment company to his business partner. Holtz, entered slot-machine biz for himself soon after, but always remained friends with Fey.
In 1894 Charles created a more advanced machine that forever changed the face of slot machines called the “Card Bell” and eventually the “Liberty Bell.” This slot machine featured the trademark staggered-stop of the wheels and an automatic payout system. The wheels now had symbols instead of numbers (first playing cards, then changed to stars and bells) and became the industry standard and was know as the “bell-type machine” that all other slot manufacturers rushed to recreate.
A Better Day
Charles was able to make an amazing life for himself and his family against all the terrible fortunes that came his way. His sons and grandsons came to take over his business and established slot machine saloons which became the model for modern slot machine floors.
His story is incredibly inspirational and lets us all know we should never give up, because a better day is just around the corner. The next time you hit the max bet and spin, don’t forget your luck is always in your own hands.