Last Saturday I had the privilege of visiting a friend who operates a shop that repairs and restores old slot machines. In twenty minutes, he showed me through his inventory of these vintage gambling devices which were interesting to look at as well as hearing their stories.
The oldest slot machine in his collection was manufactured in 1912 by the Mills Company. It is cast iron with the price of 5 cents in the casting next to the slot which shows little concern for inflation. The most interesting thing about this machine as well as others of that era is that there are vertical windows of approximately 1 x 8 inches in the front which are called mint windows. When the coin was dropped in the slot and the handle pulled, a mint fell into the tray. And on occasion, multiple coins would also drop into the tray. Because each pull of the handle yielded a mint, it was considered a candy machine and thereby avoided the definition of a gambling device which was outlawed during that time.
During the first half of the 20th century, the Mills Company was the ‘General Motors’ of slot machines with 80-90% of the market. All other manufacturers made up the balance. Each of these sought ways to make their product stand out in their effort to stay viable. One company was Watling, which made eye-catching ornate machines. Some had cast aluminum faces and were sought out by many with one or two machines in their place of business. During World War II, another company changed its design by using wood face and sides to offset the scarcity of metal due to the war effort.
In the 1950’s a federal law against transporting slot machines across state lines pushed the industry into crisis, which demanded adjustments to survive. Watling diversified into making ladders, from short stepladders to extension ladders. Mills moved their operations to Nevada believing that their best chance was in the state that had the greatest potential for slot-machine usage. At that time a small company introduced electro-mechanical slots with flashing lights etc. Mills did not adapt to this new technology quickly enough and the demand shifted to the slots made by the upstart, Bally. Mills later disappeared from the market.
The ability to adjust requires leadership.