F is for Charles Fey

I am again focusing on the famous, the forgotten and the misbegotten for Round 25 of the popular ABC Wednesday meme. But finding suitable characters is getting harder, so apologies in advance if there are repeats of previous posts.

Where would Las Vegas be without the fruit machine, the invention of car mechanic Charles Fey?

Charles was born Augustus Fey in Vöhringen, Bavaria, in 1862, the youngest of sixteen children. He moved to the US when he was 23, first to New Jersey and then to San Fransisco where he worked for the Electric Works Company.

In 1895 he created the first fully-automated fruit machine, built from cast iron on his kitchen table.

There had been previous slot machines, notably the Poker machine designed by Sittman & Pitt of New York in 1891, but the prizes were cigars or beer dispensed by the proprietor, rather than the machine itself.

Fey’s design paid out the prize directly, dictated by three reels with ten symbols on each — diamonds, hearts, spades, horseshoes and the Liberty Bell, the symbol that was to give the machine its name. And three Liberty Bells paid out the biggest prize.

To get around the gambling laws, the machine would often dispense fruit-flavoured gum instead of money, which gave the ‘fruit machine’ its nickname, rather than from the fruit symbols that followed later.

Fey hired out his machines to local bars and saloons and they were an instant success, so much so that he also had to design the first detecting pin to distinguish fake coins from real ones.

Strictly speaking, the first fully-automated fruit machine followed in 1907 when Fey replaced the card suit symbols with fruit, such as cherries and lemons. The machines also had the famous bar symbol, the logo of the Bar Fruit Gum Company.

The gangster, Bugsy Siegel, brought the first fruit machines to the casinos of Las Vegas in 1940 as an alternative to the tables and today they can pay out a jackpot as much as £37 million. Or not as the case might be.

Nobody’s prefect. If you find any spelling mistakes or other errors in this post, please let me know by highlighting the text and pressing Ctrl+Enter.

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