Sittman & Pitt First Pokies 1891, photo Tom Gustwiller
If you research the history of pokies – or slot machines as they’re called in North America, where they originated – you’ll probably find a great deal of misinformation. So many recountings tell of Charles Fey inventing the first gambling game with spinning reels, when in fact, it was a company called Sittman and Pitt that started it all.
Sittman and Pitt was a manufacturing firm out of Brooklyn, New York. They had the ingenious idea to create a machine with 5 reels – that’s right, the world’s first slots had 5 reels, not 3 – using actual playing cards to occupy the 10 positions on each reel. These machines first appeared in 1891, and were soon gracing the bar tops of taverns all over the city.
Players would insert a nickel into the machine, then pull a lever to spin the drum. The cards would flip around the reels and come to a stop on a random sequence. With so many potential winning combinations – any amalgamation of a pair up to a royal flush – the machine’s designers had no conceivable way to set up automatic payouts. Instead, the the establishment would determine the prizes; a beer for a pair of kings, or maybe a cigar for a royal flush.
One could argue that Sittman and Pitt did not develop a slot machine at all, but rather the first genuine poker machine. Which could possibly answer the age-old question as to why we Aussies call them poker machines, or pokies, in the first place. Whatever the case, there’s no denying the simple fact that Sittman and Pitt’s creation was the imminent precursor to Charles Fey’s first genuine slot machine.
A mechanic by trade, Fey developed the first 3 reel slots out of his garage in San Francisco, California. His version, appearing around 1895, was much simpler than the original Sittman and Pitt design, and was able to offer automatic payouts.
First Slots by Charles Fey, Liberty Bell
Fey reduced the number of reels from 5 to 3, and the number of cards per reel from 10 to 5, including diamonds, hearts, horseshoes, spades, and the Liberty Bell symbol that gave it its name. This made it much easier to program the device to recognize a winning combination. Lining up 3 Bells offered the highest payout of 10 nickels, or $0.50.
The Liberty Bell was so popular, Fey couldn’t keep up with the demand that was rapidly spreading across the country. Inevitably, other manufacturers went to work copying the design. They weren’t even imaginative in their creations, often using the Bell name in their titles.
Chicago’s Herbet Mills released the Operator Bell slot machine in 1907. A year later, countless slots with “Bell” names were popping up in all sorts of establishments, from saloons, brothels and cigar shops, to bowling alleys and barber shops.
Fey’s Liberty Bell may be the most famous antique slot machine in history, worthy of his own Charles Fey Exhibit at the Nevada State Museum, but we can’t ignore the fact that his design was originally inspired by another. The Sittman and Pitt poker machine of 1891 set the stage for what is today a multi-billion dollar pokies / slot machine industry.