By Tim Hunkin









Fruit machines are so profitable that US casinos are reported to make the bulk of their profits from their vast floors of machines (with extra large stakes and payouts). In the UK betting shops now make 60% of their profits from their machines.  At the other end of the spectrum small seaside arcades in the UK subsidise their ‘family entertainment machines’ from the takings of their fruit machines.  

Its easy not to realise just how addictive fruit machines are. If you just try one once, you’ll probably lose. I was brought up to assume the machines were rip-offs so I never put more than a couple of coins in one  – and this usually just confirmed what I’d been taught. I only recently realised, after I’d restored an old clockwork Mills fruit machine, that using it twenty times I was likely to win once or twice and often ended up ahead. In the UK fruit machines have to state the exact percentage of coins they payout (at least 80% of the coins inserted). Every country in the world has banned them at one point or another – and now though the machines are rarely still banned, they continue to be regulated in great detail. 

As countries have initiated national lotteries as a source of income, it has been less easy to argue that fruit machines are inherently bad. They now have to be treated as just another from of gambling, so the machines’ regulation has generally relaxed. 


The Judge was made by the Mills Manufacturing company in 1899. The handle spun the roulette wheel. Each of the 5 coin slots represents one of the 5 symbols repeated round the wheel - win if you select the symbol where the wheel stops. The very first mechanical gambling machine is often claimed to be the US 1888 ‘EUREKA BOX’. This was a small glass fronted case with a pile of coins inside – the jackpot. The played coins fell on a weighing scale, and when their cumulative weight tipped the balance, the jackpot was released. There are no surviving examples. Other similar machines called ‘Two Door Bank’ and ‘Pyramid Banker’ followed. Machines soon become more elaborate – like ‘The Judge’ above.


In Europe smaller wall mounted machines were at first more popular, like Roll out the barrel, left and domino, right. Several machines imitated dealing a hand of cards – sometimes 5 cards and sometimes 3 – with some ‘winning’ hands.


Charles Fey, working in San Fransisco in 1906, made the first recognisable 3 reel machine, with playing card symbols on the reels. Called The Liberty Bell, his design was re-engineered by the Mills company of Chicago and then copied by other manufacturers. These early gambling machines were mainly placed in bars.


 In an attempt to make them acceptable in shops and other public places a Mr O D Jennings, who ran a company called Industry Novelty Company, replaced the playing card symbols with pictures of fruit, calling the machine a chewing gum dispenser (the fruits indicating the flavours of the gum). 

Some of these machines, like the one above even had gum vending machines 'built in'. The legality of these ‘gum dispensers’ was often tested in US courts, but the manufacturers usually won. 

 The visible ‘jackpot’ (in the centre of the eagle's chest above) first appeared in 1931 and became a permanent addition. As payouts increased concerns grew, until governments started to tax the machines in the mid 30s. Some US states went further and banned all coin-op machines. The nazis banned gambling machines in Germany in 1937 and later in all their occupied territories. The Johnson act of 1951 banned fruit machines from US public places, (see photo at top of page) restricting them to designated ‘casinos’.

Despite this the machines continued to be developed, particularly with the introduction of Bally’s ‘Money Honey’ in 1963. Previously the payouts had come from tubes stacked with coins inside the machine. Money Honey’s innovation was to incorporate an electric hopper (developed for coin counting) which could hold much larger quantities of coins, making the payouts much more spectacular. In the UK, legislation in 1961 relaxed controls, permitting high payout fruit machines under supervised conditions, effectively in separate ‘over 18s’ areas.  

Until the 1960s fruit machines were entirely mechanical. 
The handle not only flicked round the reels but wound a clockwork motor which times the braking of the reels and the payout release. All fantastically ingenious. The coin tube where the coins to be paid accumulate is also visible in the picture, below the reels to the right .

The first electric machines were electromechanical – the reels were powered by motors and braked by solenoids. Pulling the handle no longer felt so satisfying, with the clockwork machines there was always the sense that the outcome could be affected by the exact speed that the handle was pulled. In the 1980s the electromechanical machines were in turn replaced by microprocessor machines, the reels driven and braked by stepper motors. In these machines, the microprocessor controls the exact stopping position of each reel. 

With the older mechanical and electromechanical machines, the positions the reels ended up in was fairly random, so the percentage payout was simply an average of all the different possible combinations  – but now the reels are driven by stepper motors, their final position is computer controlled so its easy to tweak the software to maximise the addiction. The microprocessor is also used to control the spectacular lighting sequence - often hundreds of separate lamps - in today’s machines.