In 1895, a San Francisco automobile mechanic named Charles Fey invented the first automatic slot machine, which he called the Liberty Bell. The Liberty Bell, built of cast iron, had three internal hoops, referred to today as “reels.” The reels were painted with symbols – hearts, diamonds, spades, bells, and horseshoes – and connected to an external lever that the player pulled, hoping to hit a jackpot of three of the same symbol (Three horseshoes, three spades, three hearts, etc.) Fey built a coin dispensary into the machine, too, allowing the winner to add money or take away his winnings.
The Liberty Bell differed from earlier incarnations of the slot machine, which featured large wooden multi-colored wheels on its front, instead of slot reels. The gambler won his bet when the color he guessed landed on top when the wheel stopped. Gamblers at the turn of the 20th Century were intrigued by the mechanized reels of Fey’s machine, and appreciated the easy-to-use lever and coin dispensary. Demand for the Liberty Bell exploded, so much so that Fey could not build them fast enough in his small San Francisco shop. Enterprising entrepreneurs and manufacturers approached Fey about wanting to purchase or license the rights to produce the Liberty Bell, but Fey held tight to his distribution rights, continuing to assemble the Liberty Bell piece by piece on his own.
Herbert Mills, a Chicago-based arcade game manufacturer, ignored Fey’s manufacturing license, and produced a facsimile version of the Liberty Bell in 1907, called the Operator Bell. The Operator Bell had fruit symbols on its reels, like plums, cherries, and lemons painted on its reels, giving the machine a humorous edge.
Slot machines continued to look and operate like the Liberty Bell for more than fifty years. Finally, in the 1960s, a game manufacturer called Bally Gaming introduced electro-mechanical slot machines, which relied on electrical parts to spin the reels instead of mechanics and a lever. And, yet, Fey’s three reel Liberty Bell design – with the spades, hearts, diamonds, horseshoes and bells, endures into the present where gamblers today still hope to hit the jackpot by hitting three of a kind.
For those interested in viewing this iconic piece of casino history, the Liberty Bell slot machine is currently on display at the Liberty Belle Saloon & Restaurant in Reno, Nevada.