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Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Slot Machine Art

Colorful, exciting, and impoverishing
Our 1960s vintage slot machine
Many years ago, during the early 1960s, while I was a business college student in Cincinnati, I lived at the YMCA. Near the elevator on the seventh floor was a Pepsi Cola vending machine (right). You inserted a dime, a paper cup slipped into an empty slot, and the machine dispensed into that cup a stream of the carbonated brown liquid we were all so addicted to. That's the way it was suppose to work. However, all too often the cup slipped down and no Pepsi came out, or still more frustrating, no cup came out and the Pepsi poured down the drain. We came to call it the "slot machine"--you paid your money and you took your chances. I don't know about Pepsi, but as I was researching this posting I found that there was (is) actually a Coca-Cola slot machine (below, right). I wonder if it paid off in free Coke. I don't know who designs these machines, what we've come to call "one-armed bandits," but if you've ever visited a casino where they're displayed by the hundreds, you have to admire the creativity of the artists and designers, quite apart from the colorful banditry involved.

A visual history of the gambling machine.
I wonder if anyone ever mistook
it for a drink vending machine.
The slot machine is just over 125 years old. In 1891, a company called Sittman and Pitt of Brooklyn, New York, developed a gambling machine which was the forerunner to the modern slot machine. It contained five drums holding a total of 50 card faces and was based on the game of poker (above-left). It proved so popular that soon many New York bars had one or more of them. Players would insert a nickel, pull a lever, the drums would spin, the player hoping for a good poker hand. There was no direct payout mechanism, so a pair of kings might get the player a free beer, whereas a royal flush could pay out cigars or mixed drinks. The prizes were wholly dependent on the local establishment. Then sometime around 1895, Charles Fey of San Francisco, devised a much simpler automatic mechanism with three spinning reels containing a total of five symbols--horseshoes, diamonds, spades, hearts, and a Liberty Bell, from which the machine took its name (top-center). By replacing playing cards with five symbols and using three reels instead of five drums, the complexity of reading a win was considerably reduced, allowing the inventor to devise a practical automatic payout mechanism. Three bells in a row produced the biggest payoff--ten nickels. The Liberty Bell was a huge success, later spawning a thriving mechanical gaming device industry. Even though such machines were later banned in California, Fey still couldn't keep up with demand for them elsewhere. The Liberty Bell machine was so popular that it was copied by many other slot machine manufacturers. By 1908, "bell" machines were installed in cigar stores, saloons, bowling alleys, brothels, and barber shops all over the country.

By the 1950s, the Las Vegas "one-armed bandits" actually looked like western bandits.
A taste of good taste.
It wasn't long before the slot machine industry came to realize that machines with literally lots of "bells and whistles" not to mention flashing lights and colorful images, were more addictive than simply a bunch of spinning drums. Designers were given free rein to pull out all the stops. There was no such thing as bad taste. The "one-armed bandits" in Las Vegas, the tasteless gambling capital of the United States, slot machines even began to look like western bandits (above). A well-known candy company picked up on the slot machine craze with its own dispensing device (left). There's no indication as to whether it paid off with every pull of the lever or simply dispensed candy. At any rate, the candy tasted much better than the typical nickels, dimes, and quarters.

Flashy, glamorous machines arrayed like a whole army of bandits minus their arms.
In 1963, Bally developed the first fully electromechanical slot machine, called the "Money Honey" (although somewhat similar machines had appeared as early as the 1940s). The electromechanical approach allowed Money Honey to be the first slot machine with a bottomless hopper and automatic payout of up to 500 coins without the help of an attendant. The popularity of this machine soon made the side lever antique. A few years later, this device was married to the color TV to form the gambling machine we see today by the hundreds in casinos from Las Vegas to Atlantic City (above). In more recent years designers have taken to tying into various hobbies and entertainment franchises designed to appeal to movie lovers, TV addicts, even fishermen and feline fanciers (below).

I wonder when they'll come up with slot machines featuring van Gogh, Monet, or Leonardo.
Sensory immersion.
What's next in the development of such digital gambling devices? For the answer to that you have to look only as far as the newest developments in video gaming--virtual reality. No, the gaming industry hasn't yet come up with slot machines accompanied by VR helmets (though that may be around the corner). However, many such machines now feature what's come to be termed "sensory immersion" seats (right) in an attempt to isolate the player from actual reality (not to mention the reality of how much money they're losing). So pervasive has the designer's art involving these modern-day bandits become that they have also invaded other areas of the visual arts such as painting (below, left), architecture (below, right), and even birthday cakes (bottom, left), proving once and for all that culture influences art far more than vice-versa.

Jackpot, G. Elvgrin

It only looks like a casino.
Finally, a slot machine in good taste.





























































4 comments:

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  2. Thanks, Joe, stay tuned for more of the same every day!

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  3. Linda--
    Thanks for reading and writing.

    ReplyDelete