Ever wondered how the bar, fruits and bell slot symbols came about? Or who invented the first slot machine and what it looked like? Brush up on your knowledge of slot machines, their history and the fascinating origin of all those symbols.

What are slot machine symbols?

All slot machines work on the same basic principle. A player enters their stake, then hits the play button or pulls the lever to spin the reels. Each spin sees the game’s reels turn, and a random set of symbols appears when they come to a stop.

How Slot Machine Symbols Work

Each symbol has a specific value, but you need to match them along one of the paylines to land a win. In the majority of slot machines, it takes at least three matching symbols from the left of the reels to the right for a payout. The number of reels, rows and paylines, as well as the type of symbols used, will depend on the machine you’re playing.

The meaning and design of slot machine icons depend on the game you play. Some designs are more popular than others. For example, you’ll see lots of different slot games which feature playing card symbols. Before you play, you can check the paytable of the slot to see which symbols are available and their values.

Showing a paytable of a typical slot with fruit machine symbols

Bonus Slot Machine Symbols

Aside from regular paying symbols, many modern slot games also include bonus symbols. These include wilds and scatters, which can help you unlock exciting bonus rounds. If you’re playing jackpot slots, they may even help you win a big jackpot. Thanks to developing technology, slot machines have become more complex, leading to new features and special bonuses. However, they had extremely humble beginnings.

The History of Slot Machines and Their Symbols

While casino online sites and online slots may be a modern creation, slots themselves are much older. Modern slot developers base their designs on those that were used by the very first slot machines that were created more than 100 years ago.

The Original Slot Machine

All the way back in 1891, Sittman and Pitt of Brooklyn, New York created a unique gambling machine which featured five drums. The drums of the machine were capable of rotating when the player pulled a lever, and each showed a total of ten playing cards. The aim of this early precursor to slot machines was to land a good poker hand, much like modern video poker.

Two playing cards were removed from the standard 52-card deck to reduce the odds of a royal flush landing, and bar owners could also change the configuration of the cards to make it harder for patrons to win. Winnings depended on the establishment and included free drinks, cigars or cash.

Very quickly, the machine became popular in bars across the country. However, the machine lacked the capacity to pay out prizes automatically. Because of the number of potential winning poker hands, it was impossible to devise a poker machine capable of paying out automatically using the available technology of the time.

The Liberty Bell

In 1895, a mechanic in San Francisco named Charles Fey invented a new design for a machine that featured three spinning reels. Fey had a keen interest in electronics and mechanical parts, and this machine resulted from years of tinkering. Each of the reels displayed a total of five symbols: horseshoes, diamonds, spades, hearts and the Liberty Bell.

The Liberty Bell, a symbol of the USA’s freedom and independence, gave this machine its name. The fact that it had just three reels meant it could provide automatic payouts. Players would enter a coin, pull the lever and hope for a row of three matching symbols. Like slot machines today, the size of payouts varied on the symbols.

This unique game was a major success and soon spawned a whole new industry of mechanical game machines. These machines became known as slots due to the small slot for entering coins. Over the years, they’ve also been called fruit machines, pokies and one-armed bandits.

Showing a paytable of a typical slot with fruit machine symbols

Later Slot Machine Developments

For many years, mechanical machines were the norm at casinos across the US and Europe, as well as within restaurants and bars. While gambling was against the law in the US, many establishments got around this by offering prizes in the form of food, such as flavoured gum. As a result, some slot machines used fruit designs for their symbols.

From the 1960s, slot machine manufacturers began developing electromechanical games, creating slots that were easier to play and had fewer issues. It wasn’t long after this that the first video slots were produced, with large screens able to display virtual reels.

Moving from mechanical to electrical designs allowed slots to become more complex. Previous machines could only use a few reels, but video slots could feature more reels, rows and paylines, and even second screens for bonus games.

Today, online slots are even more complex. Some, like Megaways slots, can have hundreds of thousands of paylines, as well as an ever-changing number of rows! Because developers create them using software rather than traditional reels, the possibilities for slots and slot machine symbols are endless.

Typical Slot Machine Symbols

Slot machines use a huge range of different symbols and designs. While classic slots are typically fairly simple, with five symbols, some modern games may have more than ten, not including the bonus icons.

Classic Slot Symbols

Classic slot machines and fruit machines typically still use icons and designs inspired by the Liberty Bell and those early games. Some of the most popular classic slot machine symbols include:

  • Fruit like cherries, lemons, oranges, grapes and strawberries. These are often known as fruit machine symbols.
  • The BAR symbol is another holdout from classic slot machines that used to dispense sticks of chewing gum. This symbol resembles a stack of gum and will often pay more than the fruit icons.
  • Some slots use the lucky number seven as a symbol too. This may come up as a single seven or as three sevens. These typically pay well, but of course, you should check the paytable before you play.
  • The Liberty Bell is also still widely used by classic slots. It usually provides the largest possible payout, just like the original slot machine created in 1895.

Other Slot Symbols

Since slots have now been around for more than 100 years, it’s no surprise that manufacturers and slot developers have created lots of new symbols besides those used in the Liberty Bell machine. Here are some popular examples of slot machine symbols you might come across while playing more modern slots:

  • Playing card symbols are perhaps the most common symbols used in slots, appearing in many different games. These typically include the royal face cards such as Jacks, Queens and Kings. However, some slots may feature nines and tens as well.
  • Most slots tend to have a theme, such as pirates, a popular TV show or Ancient Egypt. In these cases, symbols will generally keep with that specific theme. For example, they might be pirate flags, characters from the show or hieroglyphics.
pirate symbols, Egyptian hieroglyphic symbols and A-J playing card symbols

Bonus Symbols

Most popular slots that are developed today come with exciting bonus features. Outside of matching symbols across paylines, you can also encounter special bonus symbols to unlock new ways to win. Some of these include:

  • Wilds are the most common bonus symbol used by slot machines. These will substitute for other symbols, helping create winning lines.
  • Scatters are another symbol that regularly shows up in many different slot games. These are unique because you don’t need to match them along a line to win. In some cases, scatters unlock bonus rounds.
  • Cash symbols are very popular as you can land big wins if they show up alongside a cash collect symbol.
  • Some slots use expanding symbols, which can grow to fill an entire reel when they land.
  • Sticky symbols will stick in place on the reels for another spin, helping to create new winning opportunities.

How Online Slots Differ from Slot Machines

For decades, physical machines were the only way you could play slots. However, the rise of online casinos has changed all that. Today, it’s easy to log into a casino account and choose from thousands of exciting games. However, is there a difference between online slots and slot machines? Let’s find out.

More Variety

While slot machines have been around for much longer, there’s so much more variety to choose from when talking about online slots. You can enjoy classic fruit machine games or play slots with a crazy number of bonuses and unique features. There are Slingo slots too. The best news is that new games come out all the time, so there are always new online slots to enjoy.

Play for Free

Slots are usually played for real money, where you place a bet on each spin and potentially win if you’re lucky. With online slots, you still get to play for real money if you want. However, it’s also possible to enjoy free slots. As long as you join a licensed and legal online casino, you can try out the latest games without spending anything.

Play Anywhere

The best thing about playing online is that you can log into your account and enjoy your favourite games whenever you like. Online slots are accessible from a range of different devices, including tablets and smartphones. This means you can take the fun with you wherever you go.

The PlayOJO lobby with lots of slots available
Tom Edlin

Thomas Edlin

Tom Edlin is a professional writer and gaming enthusiast who loves playing the latest slots. When he’s not spinning the reels and enjoying the excitement of online casino games, he also enjoys running, following the ups and downs of his football team and spending time with his family.