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Written by: Devin Wong
Written on: November 10th, 2010
Tags: entertainment, computer science, mechanical engineering
Thumbnail by: Corpse Reviver/Wikimedia Commons
About the Author
Devin Wong was a senior at USC majoring in Civil Engineering with a minor in Management Consulting. He plans to attend Graduate School to study Architectural Acoustics.
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Volume XII Issue I > Inside a Slot Machine
Gambling is a billion dollar industry that attracts millions of people around the world. While games such as Texas Hold ‘Em poker receive more fanfare, by far the most profitable and available attraction in these casinos is the slot machine. While familiar in appearance, these devices are a mystery to the layperson. Dating back to the late 1800s and with a history rooted in the California Gold Rush, “slots” use the principles of probability and chance to beguile players and create a profit for owners. The design of slot machines has evolved from mobile mechanical parts to mostly electronic components over the course of the last century, but their charm and attraction remain strong. With the advent of computer servers and live streaming of data, slot machines are poised to intrigue and befuddle a new generation of gamblers hoping to hit the jackpot.

Introduction

The gambling industry brings in billions of dollars every year all over the world. Places such as Las Vegas and Monte Carlo have built their reputations on gambling establishments with hundreds of games ranging from poker to electronic horse racing and with all kinds of luxurious accoutrements from flashy shows to nightclubs. People travel from many different places, sometimes bringing a month’s worth of savings, so that they can participate in these games of chance and experience the casino atmosphere. More often than not, they leave having lost more money than they have won, but having enjoyed the experience nonetheless.
Since its introduction in 1893, the most popular form of gambling has been the slot machine. Slots are simple, giving rewards when the correct combination of symbols has surfaced. They rarely cost more than five dollars and require only the push of a button or the pull of a handle to play. Flashing lights, exciting sounds, and large grand prizes entice players who hope to strike it rich. Because they do not require skill or practice to play, these machines give everyone the chance to win. Immortalized in movies such as Casino and Ocean’s 11, slot machines continue to be the most profitable game in any casino. In Las Vegas alone, slot machines accounted for 67% of total casino profits in 2006 [1].
Various models of slot machines are in use today, but the most popular contains a combination of electronic and mechanical parts. Using the fundamentals of probability, slots are uniquely engineered to appear simple while disguising their true inner workings from the public. The slot machine combines engineering acumen, mathematical know-how, and psychological deceit in a single, attractive package.

History

In San Francisco in 1893, Gustav F.W. Schultze invented a small countertop gambling machine to capitalize on the strong gambling tendencies that resulted from the Gold Rush. This device accepted a nickel, which caused a colored disk to begin spinning. After the disk stopped, a connected star wheel determined the payout. A slide then cut the correct number of coins and dropped them into a payout cup. During the late 1890’s, Charles Fey perfected this machine by adding three wheels instead of one and changing their orientation so that they flashed symbols of playing cards through a window. Using more springs, cams and levers, Fey contrived a mechanism that allowed the reels to stop in succession, creating an atmosphere of suspense [2]. With over a thousand different possible combinations and a 75.6% payout of money played (meaning the owner kept 24.4%), Fey’s contraption known as the “Bell” became the standard archetype for slot machines and a popular attraction in saloons.