What are one arm bandits? One arm bandits (for those not in-the-know) are the name for the original, mechanical slot machines. Before the glitz and glamor of VLT’s, one arm bandits were how slot enthusiasts got their kicks.

So, where does the name ‘online bandit’ come from? The name comes from the lever on the side of slot machines that were used to start the game (it was an ‘arm, plus, players used one arm to operate it), and the games ability to ‘steal’ the players’ money.


One Arm Bandits: Invention & History

The first slot machine was created in 1891, and was a mechanical device that used cards attached to a steel, cylindrical drum, and a lever which would spin the cards to play. The game was based on poker, and rather than a line-up of matching cards, winners were based on popular, winning poker hands. The game was so popular most bars in New York started to populate their spaces with the machine.

One mechanism the original machines lacked were the ability to payout (and we know what you’re thinking – isn’t that the point of gambling?) but winners could usually receive some other sort of ‘payout’, like a drink, a cigar, or other prize from the bar.

1960s silver one arm bandit slot machine
A one arm band slot machine from the 1960’s.

After the popularity of the game surged, one problem was found fairly quickly – It was difficult to set up the machines to offer an immediate payout for winners, due to the potential combination of winning poker hands. This actually led to Charles Fey adapting the slot machine from the five-reel to a three-reel slot, since it was easier to build the machine to offer immediate payouts with this simpler design.

Three-reel slots used some of the iconic casino imagery you probably still see in casino games today – horseshoes, diamonds, spades, hearts and a liberty bell. The first iteration of this machine, by Fey, was called Liberty Bell and become super popular. The biggest payoff was three liberty bells in a row, which offered a reward of ten whole nickels.

Eventually, due to great demand (that Fey couldn’t quite keep up with) manufacturer Herbert Mills produced another version of the Liberty Bell, and went on to design a version using – you guessed it, fruit, known as the Operator’s Bell instead of the Liberty Bell. This machine actually had an optional vending machine attachment available, which had fruit flavored gum, hence the reel-design, which featured lemons, cherries, oranges, and plums.

Why the move from poker to food, you ask?

Well, in addition to the gum, there were laws in a few states that prohibited gambling, so awarding food prizes instead of money was one way manufacturers and bar owners could skirt around gambling laws.

Slots Get Electric  

Did you know slot machines are known as ‘fruit machines’ in England, pokies in Australia & New Zealand and a puggy in Scotland?

We’ve got one more – did you know that the name ‘slots’ is actually a shortened version of ‘nickel-in-the-slot-machine’? If only they still cost a nickel!

So, when did slots move from mechanical to electric?

The first electronic gambling machine was developed in 1963, and had an electronic ‘hopper’ to dispense a payout without the help of an attendant.

Eventually, the first fully electric slot machine was developed in California, in 1976 and was initially installed at the Hilton Hotel. The slot machine eventually gained approval from the Nevada State Gaming Commission, and the rest is history — Electric slots grew popular in Nevada on the Las Vegas Strip, which led International Gaming Technology to buy Fortune Coin Co., the company who owned video slot machine technology.

The rise of the electronic slot machine and its prevalence eventually led levers to be abysmal, and therefore, the name one-arm bandit.

Slot Machine Glossary

Want to know even more about online slots? Take a look at our Online Slots Glossary and learn all the terms you need to know before playing slots. 


Slot machines have changed a lot since their original invention — perhaps one of the biggest is the switch to video slots, online & mobile slots and the plethora of themes & designs that are available. Many casinos, both online and land-based now offer a 3D Slots experience, so players get a more immersive, colorful & entertaining experience. Plus, not only can people choose from classic fruit-themed slots, but slots centered around their favorite TV shows, from Game of Thrones to the Great British Bake-Off.

Arthur Crowson

Arthur Crowson writes for GambleOnline.co about the gambling industry. His experience ranges from crypto and technology to sports, casinos, and poker. He went to Douglas College and started his journalism career at the Merritt Herald as a general beat reporter covering news, sports and community. Arthur lives in Hawaii and is passionate about writing, editing, and photography.

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