The history of slot machines begins with the invention of coin-operated mechanical devices around the year 1880. At the time, America was expanding rapidly to West. Frontier towns not unlike the dusty hardscrabble villages you find in classic Western films were popping up as Manifest Destiny asserted itself.
Slot Machine Origins
The invention of coin-op devices was kind of inevitable. The people of the frontier were nothing if not crafty. They also found themselves with an ever-increasing amount of leisure time. At the same time, they had new access to inexpensive metal good. Knowledge was spreading, as was the entrepreneurial spirit and the patent market. In the beginning, these gadgets were novelty items. Found mainly in bars and restaurants, they were more like games than anything else. A popular game at the time featured a “race” between two toy horses, triggered by inserting a coin in the machine. Bettors would bet on the outcome among themselves, rather than using the machine itself.
By the year 1888, machines that paid out real coins were patented, though they weren’t that popular. These were crude devices and required a lot of upkeep. They were also notoriously easy to rip off. More popular were games that paid off in prizes from the bartender – coins, free drinks, cigars, etc. An example of these early games would be a simple three-card poker game. Your prize varied depending on which cards sprang up. The bartender would then reward you accordingly.