Chicago slot-machine trivia
From Al Capone and one-armed bandits to WMS’s January buyout, slots have a storied history in Chicago.
The sale of Chicago slot manufacturer WMS to Scientific Games marks the end of an era: The deal, announced in late January, likely means Chicago will no longer be the world’s slot-machine capital. We commemorate the area’s gaming past, from the earliest Prohibition racketeers to Pac-Man’s soaring profits.
Chicagoan Herbert S. Mills collaborates with California mechanic Charles Fey to produce the Mills Liberty Bell, a gambling apparatus with three reels and a lever on the side.
Anti-gambling sentiment swells. Mills Novelty Company creates a slot look-alike with reels of lemons, cherries, oranges and logoed black bars. Winning combinations reap fruit-flavored gum and maybe a little something on the side.
Slot-machine broker Eddie Vogel (a.k.a. “the Slot King” and “Honorary Mayor of Cicero”) invites Al Capone and Charles Luciano into Cicero.
Bally Manufacturing Company enters the slot-machine business with “Bally Baby,” an easy-to-hide bandit measuring 5" x 7.5" and weighing 8 pounds.
May 15, 1937
Cook County officials lay out a plan to enforce a ban on “one-armed bandits,” so dubbed for their levers and propensity to take, and not return, money.
In a Cook County building basement, police smash 800 slot machines confiscated over the past four years. Mills puts in a bid to buy the 20 tons of scrap metal.
Stanford engineer Harry Williams founds an eponymous gaming-equipment company. Williams’s patents include the “tilt” mechanism in pinball games.
January 1, 1951
President Truman passes the Thomas Act, which puts an end to interstate shipment of gaming machines except to dens in Nevada. Chicago slot-machine producers shrink from around 14 to two.
After enduring financial trouble, Bally hits gold with Honey Money, an electronic slot equipped with a revolutionary “bottomless” hopper that holds 500 coins for longer plays and larger payouts.
Monumental profits from Pac-Man start Bally on a three-year buying spree, which includes amusement chain Six Flags, MGM Grand hotels and the Health & Tennis Corporation (later renamed Bally Total Fitness).
Bally invents the video slot.
Facing financial difficulties, Bally spins off Midway, its video and arcade arm, which Williams acquires, rebranding as WMS.
After losing a bid to supply the Illinois State Lottery, Bally follows through on a threat to leave the state and announces its move to Nevada.
WMS enters the slot business.
April 26, 2001
A Detroit casino discovers players scamming free credits by jamming a WMS slot’s bill acceptor. WMS scurries to fix the glitch as its market share plummets to 5 percent.
New York–based Scientific Games agrees to buy WMS for $1.5 billion.