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CASINO Q&A: A Piece of Slot History

It all began with the Fey family in the late 1800s

By Don Catlin


In 1885 a Bavarian immigrant by the name of Charles Fey arrived in San Francisco, getting a job with the California Electric Works as an instrument maker. Another employee, Theodore Holtz was a foreman at the plant and In 1894 Fey and Holtz quit their jobs and formed a company called Holtz and Fey Electric Works; their intention was to compete with their former employer.

San Francisco in the late 1800s was a wide open town. There were saloons, bordellos, honky tonks, and not surprisingly, gambling. One form of gambling involved coin-operated gambling machines. Fey saw an opportunity to use his skills in this arena. Working in the basement of his Berkley apartment building, Fey created his first gambling machine in 1894, called the Horseshoe, and a year later created a machine called the 4-11-44.

This second machine was very successful and by 1896 Fey relinquished his partnership with Holtz to form Charles Fey and Company and concentrate his talents on slot machines; Holtz renamed the original business T.F. Holtz and Company. Holtz also became interested in Slot Machine and later changed the name of his company to the Novelty Machine Works. Though they were competitors in the slot machine business, Holtz and Fey remained friends.

In 1898 Fey built a machine that forever changed the face of slot machines; it was called the Card Bell. It was a three-reel, staggered-stop, with an automatic payout design; a design that dominated the slot industry until the age of electronics and is still prevalent even now. Because of the dominance of his design, Charles Fey is universally regarded as the inventor of the slot machine. The Card Bell was so named because it had playing card symbols on its reels. However, a year later Fey changed the symbols to include stars and bells and renamed the machine the Liberty Bell. The machine was a huge success and for many, many years the phrase “bell type machine” became the industry’s standard lingo to describe the three-reel, staggered-stop, automatic payout design.

Charles Fey was married and had four children, one of whom was his son Edmund, who continued in his father’s footsteps as far as designing and selling coin operated machines but was never involved with gambling machines. Edmund Fey had three sons, Edmund Jr., Franklin, and Marshall. In 1958, Franklin and Marshall decided to move to Reno, NV and open their own business, the Liberty Belle Saloon and Restaurant at 4250 S. Virginia St. in Reno and operated it until it closed last year. It was an establishment that was decorated to look like a turn of the century San Francisco business and displayed many of the old gambling machines of that period including, of course, their grandfather’s Liberty Bell.

There was another unique feature to the Liberty Belle. The brothers, Marshall in particular, started buying up old slot machines that they thought had historical value, restored them, and housed them in the restaurant as well as an attic above; a museum if you will. I had the pleasure of seeing this collection when I visited the restaurant in 1997 and it was impressive. Moreover, during this collecting period, Marshall wrote and published a beautiful book entitled Slot Machines: A Pictorial History of the First 100 Years. The book has evolved into a 6th edition entitled Slot Machines: America’s Favorite Gaming Device. It is a book anyone interested in gaming history should own and at the end of this article I’ll tell you how you can order one.

Last year, while attending the 13th International Conference on Gambling and Risk Taking at Harrah’s in Stateline, NV, I interviewed Marshall Frey.

CP: I read your book and have to say it is really a beautiful book as well as being very informative. It must have been well received since it’s now in its 6th edition.
MF: The book has been really good for me and good for the place. I sold over 33,000 copies. It has been printed in two foreign languages. I got a national history award for it and I got letters from two governors.

I’d like to ask you some questions about your grandfather. Your grandfather had a good friend who was one of his competitors, named Tom Watling.
Yes, but I don’t feel he (Charles Fey) felt he was really a competitor. The man he really didn’t think well of was (Herbert) Mills because Mills stole his Liberty Bell and several other of his machines. Because of these thefts, when my grandfather came out with his On the Square machine (a poker dice machine marketed in 1907) he offered $1,000 to anyone who could prove that Fey and Company were not the inventors of this type of machine.

Your father Edmund was in the coin machine business and did work for your grandfather for a while but when he was on his own he was never involved with gambling. Why was that?
Well, he didn’t like the gambling element. My mother didn’t like it either. Mechanically he was like his father, but morally, he was like his mother.

That brings up another matter. How did your grandfather feel about essentially being at odds with the law most of the time?
You know, we never discussed it and I have to tell you something very interesting. My mother didn’t like the idea of my grandfather manufacturing slot machines. It was during the ‘30s when all of the gangs were involved and she wouldn’t let any of our friends know that our grandfather was in the slot machine business. I was only in the factory once or twice. I never got further than the office. When he visited with our family no one ever mentioned slots. Of course we were just kids, I was 16 when he died, and I didn’t care about slots. We didn’t even know they were around.

When I was growing up in the ‘30s and ‘40s slots were illegal in California and were not visible to the general public. They had to be in the San Francisco Bay area since my grandfather maintained his slot machine business until 1944, the year of his passing. There were some in rural areas and private clubs. There may have been some in bars but I was too young to imbibe. The first time I saw a slot machine was in Idaho, probably in 1945 or ‘46. Later, in 1950, there was a $500 possession law passed in California. You were fined $500 for each machine in your possession and as a consequence you didn’t see them anywhere.

Did you realize how much of an impact he had on the slot business?
Well, we didn’t realize that until later. When I wrote the book and we collected numerous machines for the Liberty Belle, we kept running into machines that we had no idea he had built. He didn’t keep records.

How many Liberty Bells are around?
About seven. We have two of them. At first we thought we had the only one. Then John Watling called my father in the early ‘60s and said, “Would you like to buy one of your father’s machines?” My dad said, “No, but my boys probably would.” My grandfather had given it to Tom Watling for free but we had to pay $500 to get it back from John Watling, his son.

What do you think your grandfather would think about the current status of slot machines?
Nobody could imagine. We started operating with the old mechanical machines. Everybody figured that was the machine forever. In fact, it wasn’t until Bally came out with the electro-mechanical machines that the mechanical machines became obsolete. And then the stepper slot machines made tremendous changes. The reason Bally fell behind is that they thought the Gaming Commission would never allow it.

You’re referring to the virtual reel machines?
Yes, the virtual reels. It’s hard to believe they allowed it. It certainly made a change in slot machines.

You’re grandfather made the Card Bell in 1898, is that right?
From the research I’ve done I had to estimate the dates. There’s no absolute proof of the dates. Some of the early articles used 1889 and 1895 as the date of the invention of the Liberty Bell. There was little truth in advertising at that time. Watling and Mills advertised they began business in 1889. They weren’t in business until almost a decade later. My grandfather advertised that he started in 1889. I don’t know how they figured the dates. I think they all wanted to say they were in business before the other.

Am I right that the Liberty Bell was made the year after the Card Bell?
I have no positive proof of that. At the time Grandpa built the Liberty Bell, poker machines were by far the most popular machines. However, at that time it was not mechanically feasible to build a five-reel poker machine to pay out automatically. So he did the next best thing; he built a three-reel machine and he used card symbols. Every award card on the Liberty Bell had Liberty Bell symbols on one side and Card Bell symbols on the other side. Every one of these slots that has survived has that feature. This proves that they were operated both ways.

The maximum 20-pay Liberty Bell had some difficulty competing with the card machines in which a player could win 100 cigars or drinks for a nickel. His only paid 20 coins. You couldn’t get a real five card flush with three reels. Three card symbols didn’t represent a real life poker game with its five-card hand. I think that is why he introduced the Liberty bell symbols. The Fey machine had the definite advantage of the automatic pay—the legality of which was often challenged in San Francisco.

But people loved that three-reel staggered-stop configuration, did they not?
The contemporary wheel machines were very popular. Their greatest disadvantage was that players could count the spaces and colors and easily figure out the odds. For example, you count how many red and how many black spaces that pay 2 to 1. It is obvious that half the spaces would have to be red and half black for an even bet. But there were three or four other colors on the wheel. The greatest advantage of the three-reel slot is the suspense factor; the first reel stopped, then the second, then the third. No one could figure the odds with three reels. And it was impossible for the player to figure the magic of how it read the reels.

This is a question about aesthetics. How do you feel about the modern machines versus the old mechanical machines?
It’s almost not a slot machine as we knew it. Some of the old machines were beautiful with their antique casting and colorful fruit symbols. The new machines compensate for this with their dazzling graphics and sounds. The Liberty Bell, though simple, was attractive. The Mills Liberty Bell was a beautiful machine. It had a Statue of Liberty and the New York harbor on the side of the machine. A lot of work went into the superb design of the castings.

What is going to happen to your collection?
We’re going to have an auction, but we will save our grandfather’s machines; they’re going to the state museum in Carson City. I want a permanent home for them so that we can carry on his legacy and it will be a benefit for future slot historians. In a few years my brother and I will be gone. Our father’s machines are to stay in the immediate family. He had 21 patents, some of them on arcade machines.

He had a KO Fighters machine; two boxers, with a release pin on the jaw, who would hit each other until one of them hit the other’s pin release and knocked him out. Also around 1926 he built an electro-mechanical duck range. In it the ducks would go around and you would shoot at them. When the duck was hit, a solenoid would allow the duck to fall over and a klaxon horn would blow, imitating the sound of a wounded bird. His initial game was a single row of ducks and later he built a double with two rows of ducks.

It must have taken a tremendous amount of work and research to get all of the information and pictures that you have in the slot machine book. That is a marvelous document.
We were just building our collection. I would buy machines I felt were really important to the history of the slot. I wrote the text on a typewriter, restored the machines, and then photographed the slots. In 1975 I purchased a 35mm camera and saved a lot of money by taking my own pictures. I initially co-published my book with an established firm and a year later purchased their rights for one dollar. In 1987 I purchased a computer and became an instant computer nut; I’m sure you are too. I do all of my book work on my MacIntosh and just hand the printer the disc. This saves me a lot of money and work and is a hobby that keeps me busy.

If you would like to obtain a copy of Marshall’s book you can write to him at Liberty Belle Books, 2925 West Moana Lane, Reno, NV 89509, call him at (775) 826-2607, or email him at

CASINO Q&A: A Piece of Slot History.

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