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 Texas : Features : Columns : "Texas Tales"
SLOTS

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox
Anyone who thinks slot machines contribute to compulsive gambling and criminal enterprise should blame Charles Fey. Anyone who thinks slot machines will benefit Texas school children and the state's economy should be thankful for Charles Fey.

If Texas lawmakers ever decide to legalize video lottery machines (AKA slot machines) to generate revenue for public education, a decision Texas voters likely would have to ratify by approving a Constitutional amendment, it will mark a major turnaround from the days when Texas Rangers used to smash slots with sledge hammers and dump the shattered machines into Galveston Bay.

However the story plays out in the Lone Star State, it began in San Francisco in 1895 when the German-born Fey invented a money-making machine fueled by mankind's eternal hope for easy gain. Referred to be some as the Thomas Edison of slots, Fey perfected his first machine in the basement of his residence.

His device, which had three rotating wheels set in motion by the pull of a handle and collected fifty cent pieces (and occasionally paid the money and more back), quickly proved highly popular. In fact, after placing a few prototypes at strategic locations, he did so well that he gave up his partnership in an electrical supply company to give his full attention to the manufacture of his machine. He called it the Liberty Bell.

In 1896, Fey opened a slot machine factory, mass producing the Liberty Bell and three subsequent inventions, machines called Draw Poker, Three Spindle and the Klondike. The devastating San Francisco earthquake destroyed the business in 1906, but by then many Americans were hooked on Fey's one-armed bandits. If he ever had occasion to come to Texas, it is not revealed in any of the Web sites that tell his story, but his machine definitely made it to the Lone Star State.


By the early 1920s, the beginning of what has been called the Golden Age of Slots, Texas was awash in crude oil and money. Production in West Texas had created boom towns around Wichita Falls, Midland-Odessa, Big Lake, McCamey and Borger. In Central Texas, Mexia experienced an oil boom as well.

In all of these towns, illegal slot machines constituted part of the gambling mix available to oil field workers and others who descended on the areas to make money off the boom. Rangers battled gambling and the other boomtown vices from town to town, keeping the lid on until they had to move to the next assignment.

Fey's invention also helped the economy on Galveston Island, where slots relieved visitors of their silver with an efficiency that pirates like Jean Laffite could only have marveled at.

When Bugsy Siegel opened his Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas in the late 1940s, he had slot machines installed. Siegel made his big money off table games like roulette, but slots grew in popularity. By the mid-1980s, slots amounted to half of most casinos' business. In the 1990s, they took the lead in revenue generation.

The machines are all electronic these days, but Fey's invention laid the groundwork for the devices now delicately referred to by lawmakers as video lottery machines.

Slot machines may not have been invented in Texas, but of the hundreds of machines manufactured over the years, two have had the word "Texas" in their name. In 1931, a firm manufactured a slot called the Texas Leaguer. Thirty-three years later, in what surely was intended irony, another company built an arcade

Mike Cox
May 19, 2004
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