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The slot machine is the only casino game that is 100 percent American in origin. It has been very popular since its inception, and has remained so. It is the principle game in today's modern casino - providing more than 65 percent of the total gaming revenue.
The gold rush of 1849 swept the wheels of fortune westward, and by the 1850s, large gambling houses were already operating in San Francisco. For the next 30 years or so, the city was the forerunner of present-day Las Vegas, with gambling machines dotting every corner and running in many businesses. It was a gambler's paradise, with wagering accepted on nearly everything.
A popular game found in western saloons was played on a big single wheel or color-wheel floor machine. Players would bet on the colors, numbers or various combinations displayed on the spinning wheel. If they won, there was an automatic payout. These large, resplendent machines, made of quarter-sawn oak with ornate nickel-plated iron castings, were heavy and bulky. Another favorite was the card machine, or diminutive poker slot, known as "trade stimulators," or "counter machines." They were especially popular in saloons and cigar stores, but could also be found in many other businesses around town. The game had 50 "drop cards" that revolved on five drums within the machine. A high card from two different suits was usually left out to reduce the possibility of hitting a Royal Flush (a straight flush having an ace as the highest card). A patron would drop a nickel into the machine, push the lever and watch the cards flip over. In order to circumvent the law, these "vending" machines would dispense tokens for drinks, cigars, cigarettes, gum, or candy rather than cash winnings. In some cases, the tokens could be used to buy merchandise in the store, but often, they were exchanged for money.
Marshall Fey, author of "Slot Machines: A Pictorial History of the First 100 Years," believes poker machines existed as early as 1890, and remained one of the nation's most prevalent gaming devices until World War I. Interest was renewed in the 1980s, when video poker was introduced in casinos. So profitable were the early card machines that many manufacturers jumped into production. Some of the biggest and most recognizable names of the time were Mills Novelty, Caille Brothers, Automatic Machine Company of Chicago, manufacturer of the Gabel floor machines, and Watling Manufacturing of Chicago. From 1891 to 1910, the most popular trade stimulators were the card machine, the automatic dice machine, and an automatic roulette machine.
In 1891, Clawson Manufacturing of Newark, NJ, produced a jackpot counter pocket machine and an automatic dice machine. A pocket machine had four or five pockets at the base of the playing field that held coins that could be won with the coin played entering a narrow coin entry above the pocket. That same year, Sittman & Pitt of Brooklyn, NY, came up with the first nationally-known poker card machine.
Gustav Schultze was the first to invent the counter wheel machine in 1893, called "Horseshoes," The wheel had 25 symbols. Ten were horseshoes that automatically paid the winner two nickels, one symbol was a joker, which was good for a free drink, and the remaining fourteen symbols were playing cards and stars - blanks that paid nothing. Fey noted that for the next 30 years, this was the second most popular coin gaming machine. Another more simple payout slot built the same year, was the 3-in-1 machine, returning three nickels for every one played. German-born Charles Fey was not a gambling man, yet the chance he took in 1897 paid off big time. One might say he hit the megabucks with his "Liberty Bell," a three-reel, automatic cash payout slot machine. Rather than using playing cards, the symbols were liberty bells, suit symbols and horseshoes. A competitor later used symbols on their bell machines that are more familiar to most of us - lemons, cherries, plums and oranges.
Completed in 1899, the "Liberty Bell" was the first slot to accept both nickels and trade checks, and could divert the coins to the cash can and tokens to the payout unit. It literally spawned a new industry and is the most recognizable machine in casinos today. Although Fey's "Card Bell," or five-reel poker machine, preceded the Liberty Bell by two years, the name "bell" has become synonymous with the three-reel slots. Fey said his grandfather, the "Thomas Edison of the slot machines," invented the three most poplar slots used in casinos: The three-reel slot, draw poker and the dollar slot.
Suspense and/or anticipation was the enticement of the bell slots, according to Marshall Fey. With the first, second, and third reels stopping in succession, the player could get two of three symbols exposed in the window at one time. This "near miss" would entice the gambler to keep playing. With only three symbols (later nine symbols) exposed at one time, the player had no way of calculating the payout percentage. Of course, with more symbols per reel, more combinations were possible. Marshall Fey said a burglary of one of the Liberty Bells from a saloon in 1905, later turned up a "second line" of the popular machine, from the Mills Novelty plant in Chicago, followed by one produced by Caille Brothers of Detroit, and later, by Watling Manufacturing of Chicago. Caille Brothers also made the first musical slot machine in 1899. "The Musical Puck," popular in mining towns, paid out in music checks that you could redeem for one tune.
Herbert Mills, known as the "Henry Ford of the slot machine industry," was the world's largest producer of bell machines, and sold a variety of trade stimulators and other gaming machines with the help of extensive advertising and mail order catalogs. Worldwide, Mills Novelty Co. had one of the nation's larger factories, Fey noted. "Obviously the Fey monopoly of the three-reel bell slot was broken (following the burglary), but as a result, its popularity soon extended worldwide," said Marshall Fey.
The city of San Francisco was so "open" from 1890 to 1910, what with city government "winking" at legal issues, that owning or producing any of the 1,500 nickel-in-the-slot machines was a very lucrative business. The proliferation of slots soon spread throughout the state, but Lady Luck had other plans. A combination of the 1906 earth quake in San Francisco, which destroyed nearly every business within a four-mile radius, the strength of the Women's Christian Temperance Union, and other reform groups, the good times came to a screeching halt in 1909, when gaming machines were outlawed. Nevada followed suit the following year, and in 1911, there was a statewide ban on slot machines in California. Destiny would not allow the machines' demise, however, albeit in a different form. Circumventing the law, vending machines that dispensed gum for every nickel played started appearing in the same locales that once supported gambling. Despite cries heard from "reformers" that innocent children were being introduced to gambling, the gumball machines continued to flourish and were readily copied by every manufacturer, along with other new ideas.
The "Golden Age" of slot machines took off with the advent of Prohibition in 1919, and the subsequent "Roaring Twenties" served as the lightning rod. The years were prosperous ones, moving from nickel slots to dimes, quarters and half dollars. Unfortunately, it was also a haven for racketeers wanting to share in the bootlegging, prostitution and gambling revenue garnered from speakeasies that had developed. When Prohibition ended in 1933-34, the connection between racketeers and slot machines was so strong that the bell machine was dubbed the "one-armed bandit."
The Depression years that followed did not discourage interest in gambling. Rather, the sale of the illegal gaming devices and the profits they derived kept many businesses afloat. New ideas included a "Talking Cash Register" that audibly announced each win; the "Midget Derby," one of the earliest cash payout horse race slot machines; a "Pistol Range," advertised as "purely a game of skill" that paid out in candy; and Fey's, "Scale and Strength Testers," a coin-operated weighing machine that was a beam scale rather than spring controlled. It was similar to one found in a doctor's office today, and allowed for a higher degree of accuracy. Fey also produced at this the "Triple Roll" trade stimulator at this time, with a possible 24,360 combinations. Paying as much as $30 for a quarter play, it was advertised as the "Honest Trade Stimulator" because "players know that all combinations are formed naturally and uncontrolled." In 1929, Fey's Silver Dollar slot was the first bell machine to accept a coin of that size.
From 1920 to 1940, some of the top manufacturers were Mills Novelty Company, O.D. Jennings, Pace Manufacturing Co., and Watling Manufacturing Co. In 1923, changes occurred that included making machines from aluminum rather than cast iron, candy mints took the place of gum, and five years later, the jackpot machine was introduced. In 1931, the year Nevada legalized gambling, the Bally Manufacturing Co. jumped into the coin machine fray with its BALLYHOO pinball game. It was not until the mid-1960s that Bally became a principle manufacturer of bell slot machines, making the first electric version called a "hopper." The hopper has a large reservoir for coins and was capable of paying out up to 1,000 coins. This was in contrast to the slide on the previous mechanical machines that could only pay 10 coins, Fey said. Manufacturing all but ceased during World War II, when old, obsolete machines were melted down to produce weapons. When the war ended in 1945, slot production once again swung into high gear by remodeling and updating the existing models. The next five years were very good.
"Although not condoned in many states, machines continued to operate in the twilight zone of the law," Fey noted. They were found in service clubs, gentlemen's lodges, private golf clubs and in the "back rooms" of businesses. The biggest blow came with the passage of the Johnson Act in 1951, prohibiting interstate shipment of slot machines except where they were already legal. That left only Nevada, parts of Idaho and Maryland, and the foreign markets for sales. You can't keep a good game down, and by the end of 1950, gaming was back on track. The electronic game of the '60s was followed by video slots in 1975. Three years later, this was revamped into a draw poker machine. In 1986, "Megabucks" hit the casino scene, whereby a network of 125 progressive three-coin dollar slots were linked together in nine Nevada casinos. This was followed by "Quartermania" in 1989.
Machines now use computerized microchips that allow players an endless variety of options. The final step (so far) has casinos "cleaning" up their act. Today's machines pay out with paper vouchers. With human nature being what it is, there will always be players who try to outwit the various slot games, and there will always be someone who will continue to challenge these players with new ideas and more innovative slots.