The first fruit machines were slot machines, but the first slot machines were not fruit machines.
That’s because the term ‘slot machine’ originally applied to all coin-op machines, including vending machines and automatic horse racing machines similar to those still found in amusement arcades to this day.
Starting from the 1880s, if you won on one of these horse racing machines, you might receive a prize in the form of cigars or drinks – yes, pub slot machines have existed since the very first days of coin-op gaming machines!
Interestingly, these machines led to a commonly used saying for games that almost (but not quite) landed on a prize – “close, but no cigar”.
One-armed bandits and fruit machines
Towards the end of the 1880s, coin-op machines started to pay cash prizes. These included ‘tip the balance’ machines similar to modern-day coin dozer/push-off machines, and ‘wheel of fortune’ style games.
By the mid-1890s, American inventor Charles Fey had created the first slot machines similar to the pub fruit machines you see today.
Fey’s second slot machine to enter mass production was 4-11-44, a one-armed bandit based around the three winning numbers in the lottery game Policy.
Soon after, he created Liberty Bell, and the benchmark was set for modern slot machines. The reels still did not feature fruits, but the combination of playing card suit symbols, plus lucky horseshoes and bells was a big step towards the fruits we know and love today.
20th century fruit machines
Fey’s factory – and almost all the first-generation Liberty Bell machines – were destroyed in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.
This disaster may be partly responsible for the rise of 20th century fruit machines. In 1910, a partnership between Fey and the Mills Novelty Company produced Operator Bell, a new version of Liberty Bell with – at last – fruits used as the symbols on the reels.
During the decades that followed, these Mills-produced fruit machines evolved to use wooden cabinets that were much lighter than the original cast iron, and much quieter mechanisms.
Modern pub fruit machines
The past 50 years have seen pub fruit machines evolve yet again, with the introduction of secondary feature boards and much more complex gameplay and gamble options.
In the 21st century, touchscreen fruit machines have become more commonplace, with pub quiz machines adding to the gameplay options for patrons too.
The choice is wider than ever – and with new games, features and rules being introduced all the time, who knows where fruit machines will go next??