Charles August Fey Portrait

Charles August Fey Portrait

Charles August Fey


Over the course of a successful career, Charles August Fey made significant contributions to the development of America’s gaming industry. He is remembered today as the creator of the modern slot machine and as the “Thomas Edison of slots.”


American business and technology has long profited from the ingenuity, technical know-how, and practical skills of immigrants such as Charles August Fey (born February 2, 1862 in Vöhringen, Bavaria; died November 4, 1944, San Francisco, CA) who arrived in the United States in 1885 at the age of twenty three.[1] Born Augustinus Jospehus Fey in the small Bavarian village of Vöhringen, Charles Fey started working at an early age. He left home at age fifteen, moving first to France and then to England before finally settling in the U.S. Possessed of a keen understanding of mechanics, Fey built his first slot machine in 1894. Soon thereafter, he built the popular 4-11-44 slot machine and then the famous Liberty Bell, a three-reel automatic payout machine that still forms the basis of slot machines today. Fey’s slot machines represented the nexus between technological innovation and the rise of the modern entertainment industry. Much of his success lay in his ability to continually refine his machines in order to capitalize on opportunities afforded by the emerging gaming industry in late 1890s San Francisco.

Family Background

Located in the district of Neu-Ulm in Bavaria, Vöhringen is a relatively small town that forms part of the Danube-Iller region. The town, whose history can be traced back to the 5th or 6th century A.D., underwent several changes of political administration during the 15th century and suffered the ravages of the Thirty Years’ War (1618-48) before becoming part of the Kingdom of Bavaria in 1756. The reign of Maximilian III (1727-77)[2] brought agricultural progress and the emergence of infant industries to Bavaria, but these developments mostly benefitted large cities such as Augsburg and Nuremberg, leaving rural areas like Vöhringen largely unaffected. Changes of a more far-reaching nature first came during the reign of Max II (1848-64), when Bavaria underwent political liberalization and industrialization, processes whose effects were felt in villages throughout the kingdom. The dawn of industrialization in Bavaria as a whole was evidenced by the completion of a regional railroad system in the early 1860s, while its arrival in Vöhringen itself was signaled by Philipp Jakob Wieland’s purchase of a local mill and adjacent factory ground in 1864.[3]

It was against this historical backdrop that Augustinus Josephus Fey was born on February 2, 1862, to Maria (née Vollman) and Karl Fey. At the time, Vöhringen had a population of about 700. As the youngest of fifteen children in a household with an annual family income of 300 Gulden, Fey was part of a large and poor family. His father, Karl Josef Gustav Johann, worked as a schoolmaster and sexton of the ecumenical cathedral at Neu-Ulm between 1847 and 1862. In order to supplement his meager income, Karl Fey also served as the village council clerk and meat inspector. Though life was harsh for the family, the railroad system made it easy to escape Vöhringen. The railroad and the opportunities it afforded had a considerable impact on the young August Fey and probably sparked his desire to explore Bavaria and beyond.[4]

In 1876, at age fourteen, Fey accompanied his older brother Edmund to his job at a farm tool factory owned by the Munich Plow Company. Fey was on school vacation at the time. His experience at the farm tool factory was no doubt significant, for it was there that he acquired basic skills in mechanics and developed a keen interest in mechanical devices. The following year, at age fifteen, Fey left Bavaria for France. His decision to leave may have been prompted by a variety of factors: it is conceivable, for instance, that he was afraid of being drafted into the new army of the recently unified German Reich. As a Bavarian, he may have felt little allegiance to a Prussian-dominated Reich and thus been especially reluctant to serve in its military. On an entirely different note, there was also a precedent for emigration within his extended family: his mother’s youngest brother, Martin Vollman, had departed for New Jersey in the 1850s. Finally, Fey’s training at the Munich Plow Company may have also played a role in his decision to emigrate, since it gave him a marketable skill.

Indeed, when he eventually found work in France it was with an intercom equipment manufacturer in Amiens. It would appear that Fey remained in France for approximately three years, after which point he obtained a recommendation from his French employer and moved to London, where he spent the next five years as an apprentice in the nautical instrument department of a British shipyard. Presumably, Fey’s long stay in London allowed him to acquire professional skills, attain English language fluency, and save enough money to travel to the U.S., his final destination. In 1885, he immigrated to New Jersey. At first, the twenty-three-year-old Fey lived with his uncle’s family in Hoboken, New Jersey, but after a few months he set out for California, the new land of opportunity. After trekking across the United States, he arrived in San Francisco later that year. A wide open town of saloons, honky-tonks, and gambling, San Francisco was also the center of the nation’s burgeoning coin-machine industry.[5]

Upon his arrival in San Francisco, Fey found a job as a machinist. He also met and courted Marie Christine Volkmar (1866-1942), whose parents, Christian (1832-1897) and Emilie Volkmar (1842-1902), had emigrated from Westphalia and ran a flourishing cigar business in San Francisco. But his dreams of finding permanent work and marrying Marie were shattered when Fey was diagnosed with tuberculosis. Told that he had only a year to live, he bought a horse and sought the warmer climes of Mexico, where he was determined to fight and overcome the illness. Unfortunately, his health did not improve there, so he returned to San Francisco to undergo successful creosote treatments. After recuperating and receiving a clean bill of health, Fey was ready to revisit his plans for long-lasting happiness in San Francisco. It appears that he soon found permanent employment, for the San Francisco City Directory for 1888 lists August Fey as an instrument maker employed by the California Electric Works (later Western Electric).[6] There, he befriended Theodor Holtz, a German compatriot and company foreman who later became a company partner. By the end of the 1880s, Fey had changed his name from August Fey to Charles August Fey. (Apparently, he had always been irritated by the nickname “Gus.”) Known to intimates as Charlie, he had not forgotten Marie. He renewed his courtship with her and the two married in 1889; their daughter Alma was born in 1890. The young couple, who lived with Marie’s parents at 374 Grove Street for a time,[7] quickly had two more daughters, Elsie and Marie, born in 1891 and 1893, respectively; their only son, Edmund, was born in 1896.[8] Unfortunately, Christian and Emilie Volkmar died when their grandchildren were still young. Christian’s death was reported in the November 14, 1897, edition of The San Francisco Call; Emilie’s was reported in the edition of January 5, 1902.

Business Development

During his time at California Electric Works, Fey met Theodor Holtz and Gustav Friedrich Wilhelm Schultze. Both had emigrated from Germany and shared Fey’s enthusiasm for mechanical devices, particularly slot machines, which were extremely popular in San Francisco in the 1890s. The first “nickel-in-the slot” machines dated back to the 1880s, but they were more like vending machines than slot machines in the contemporary sense. Coin-operated gambling devices soon followed, but these early-model machines could not pay back winnings. A human attendant, usually a proprietor or a barkeeper, was needed to issue the payout. Since many of these machines were located in cigar stores and liquor-licensed establishments, payout was often in trade checks or tokens, which could be redeemed for cigars or drinks. Slot machines varied in size from counter-top models to large floor machines. Among the countertop machines, poker machines proved the most popular. Poker machines featured actual cards that flipped on five reels after the deposit of a nickel. Awards ranged from one drink for a pair of kings or aces to one hundred drinks for a royal flush.

In 1893, Schultze was awarded a patent for his so-called Horsehoe slot machine, the first recognizably modern slot machine with an automatic payout mechanism.[9] It was the first U.S. patent issued for a gambling machine. After seeing Schultze’s design, Fey was inspired to build a slot machine with automatic payout. In 1894, he designed his own version of the Horseshoe. That same year, after amassing sufficient start-up funds, Fey and Holtz quit their jobs at California Electric Works and founded Holtz and Fey Electric Works as equal partners on 39 Stevenson Street in San Francisco. Their company was located in close proximity to Schultze’s business, the first recorded slot machine workshop in San Francisco. Holtz and Fey Electric Works specialized in model work and gear-cutting and also provided the parts for Schultze’s machines. Like Holtz and Schultze, Fey and his family moved to Berkeley, then a small and quiet town of 6,000. There, in 1895, in the basement of his residence, he completed a modified version of the Horseshoe, the groundbreaking 4-11-44 slot machine. The name derived from the game Policy, a popular lottery game in which 4-11-44 was the rare winning sequence. Fey’s three-disc floor machine paid up to $5.00 for the winning number combination. Unlike other contemporary coin-operated games, Fey’s slot machine paid out coins, not trade checks or tokens, and this made it both more appealing and more lucrative than traditional poker machines of the time.[10]

Fey’s first 4-11-14 slot machine was so successful at a local saloon that he quickly set out to produce more. In 1896, he sold his share in Holtz and Fey Electric Works and used the money to start Charles Fey & Company.[11] At the time, Fey was working on Draw Poker, a cash-paying poker machine. As his business continued to flourish, Fey realized that he could no longer operate out of his basement workshop. In 1897, he set up shop on the third floor of an ornate building at 406 Market Street in the heart of San Francisco’s financial district.[12] The move helped Fey grow his business, but it also allowed him to be closer to his slot machine competitors, including Schultze, Watling Manufacturing Company, and industry giant Mills Novelty Company of Chicago. A year later, in 1898, he designed the first Card Bell slot machine, a three-reel, staggered-stop machine with automatic payout. The spinning reels, which were activated by a lever, featured suitmarks that lined up to form poker hands when the reels were at rest. It was here, in the delayed, sequential stopping of the reels of suitmarks, that the machine broke new ground by providing the player with the crucial elements of drama and suspense.[13] In 1899, Fey modified the Card Bell, replacing some of the suitmarks with stars and bells.[14] In the process, he created the revolutionary Liberty Bell slot machine, named in honor of the United States’ famous symbol of freedom.[15]A three-reel, countertop machine with a lever on its right side, the Liberty Bell had ten symbols on each reel and ten stops, which allowed for 1,000 different combinations. In addition to stars and bells, the reels featured horseshoes, spades, diamonds, and hearts. Designed to return 86% of the coins inserted into it, the Liberty Bell paid out fifty cents when three bells aligned. It immediately began competing with the widely popular poker machines that were “on the counters of almost all cigar stores in San Francisco, and on the bars of saloons.”[16]

According to Marshall Fey, Charles Fey’s grandson, it was mechanically impractical to build a five-reel slot machine to simulate a five-card flush from the perspective of a poker player. This being the case, Fey “did the next best thing. He built a three-reel machine and 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.”[17] The mechanics and design of the Liberty Bell proved so influential that the term “bell-type machine” dominated the slot industry until the dawn of the electronic age.

While the rising popularity of slot machines was good news for Fey and the city’s other slot machine manufacturers, it was cause for concern for many San Francisco residents. Headlines in the local press – “Fifteen Hundred Swindling Machines in One City” – offered an alarmist take on the proliferation of slot machines[18] and marked the beginnings of a public crusade that would profoundly alter the slot machine industry in the first decades of the 20th century. Although the full impact of the anti-gambling crusade would not be felt for years to come, some of its effects, particularly in the area of patent protection, had already proved detrimental to slot machine inventors in the 1890s. Fey was apparently not interested in patenting his machines, but even if he had been, California’s anti-gambling laws would have prevented him from doing so. As mentioned earlier, Fey’s former acquaintance Gustav Friedrich Wilhelm Schutlze had been awarded a patent in 1893 for his Horseshoe slot machine. In 1897, Schultze filed suit against Fey’s former business partner, Theodor Holtz, and others (presumably Fey as well) for infringing upon this and another patent for a coin-operated gambling machine. In the end, the court ruled against Schultze by arguing that his slot machines were illegal, and thus unworthy of protection, insofar as their sole purpose was for gambling.[19]

In the absence of patent protection, Fey decided not to sell or lease his machines; rather, in order to protect his inventions, he installed his slot machines in saloons and operated and serviced them himself. He made money through a 50/50 revenue sharing arrangement with proprietors. When proprietors began having problems with players who cheated by inserting fake nickels, Fey responded by creating a detecting pin, which was able to distinguish real coins from fakes. Fey’s business model proved extremely successful, and as more and more establishments requested his slots, he eventually expanded into the East Bay and down the peninsula to San Jose, “claiming the largest slot operation in the country during the early 1900s.”[20] Despite his expanding business, Fey always remained focused on the San Francisco market and committed to his San Francisco location.

The spread of Fey’s slot machines throughout the city and the region meant that others had greater opportunity to copy and commercialize his devices. According to Fey’s son, Edmund, a San Francisco saloon was burglarized one night in 1905 and just two items were taken: a bartender’s apron and a Liberty Bell.[21] Two years later, a virtual replica of the Liberty Bell appeared in Chicago; it was manufactured and sold by Fey’s rival Herbert Mills of the Chicago-based Mills Novelty Company. Mills’ machine, the Mills Liberty Bell, had a different case but the internal mechanism was the same. Soon enough, other competitors, including Caille Brothers Manufacturing Company in Detroit and Watling Manufacturing Company in Chicago, began producing their own bell slot machines.

While Mills was developing his own version of the Liberty Bell, Fey was designing new slot machines and other gaming devices. At the time, his workshop was still located on the 400 block of Market Street. Unfortunately, slot machine production ended there when Fey’s factory – and virtually the entire financial district – was destroyed in the San Francisco earthquake and fire of April 18, 1906.[22] After the disaster, many manufacturers moved their production sites to the East, but Fey chose to remain in San Francisco. With the support of Mary Phelan, a member of a prominent political family and his former landlady, he built a temporary tin-shack factory on the corner of Jesse and Fifth Streets, opposite the San Francisco Mint. Within four months he was back in business. Gambling and slot machine production rebounded quickly, and Fey had to move to a bigger site at 1071 Mission Street. At the same time, he also opened a Chicago branch office to compete with his Midwestern rivals.

The Rise of the Public Crusade against Slot Machines and Gambling

In the aftermath of the earthquake and the fire, it became ever clearer that San Francisco, and all of California, had embarked on a course that would prove increasingly difficult for Fey and other slot machine manufacturers. Indeed, for some gambling opponents, the earthquake was nothing less than a biblical sign that the nefarious slots finally had to go.

California had emerged as a national center for gaming soon after it acquired statehood in 1850. Within the state, San Francisco was particularly well known for cards, gambling, lotteries, and, of course, slot machines. By the early 1890s, the city boasted more than 3,000 licensed liquor establishments and 1,500 slot machines.[23] Over time, however, a number of factors helped turn public opinion against gambling. They included the rise of political bosses and political machines at the local level, which bred corruption in the form of prostitution, gambling, crime, and cronyism. The public outrage that resulted from all of this directed itself at a variety of targets, including slot machines. Equally important was the spread of a more Victorian code of morality that found expression in vice prevention societies and the like. By the end of the 19th century, legislation at all levels of government had made most types of gambling illegal. In 1894, the United States Internal Revenue Playing Card Act levied a two-cent tax on decks of cards. By the turn of the 20th century, more than half of U.S. states had passed constitutional amendments prohibiting lotteries. Arizona and New Mexico were even forced to outlaw casinos in order to gain statehood. States also passed anti-gambling legislation to repress other operations such as the “common gambling house,” the bucket shop, and the Victorian card sharp.[24]

Local legislators throughout the country joined the anti-gambling choir as well, and soon enough the fine line between a “trade stimulator,” which dispensed prizes in the form of cigars, chewing gum, stamps, or other small novelty items, and a “gambling machine” became “a tug-of-war between slot machine operators and municipal authorities.”[25] The city of San Francisco was no exception. From 1897 to 1902, the city had supported a rather liberal gambling policy, but it took a stricter stance in subsequent years when city fathers curtailed the slot machine reward system. Since cash prizes were prohibited and merchandise was the only legal form of payout, slot machine manufacturers added amusement and merchandising features to their coin machines. Music boxes were also integrated into floor machines. In an effort to abide by the law, Fey referred to his slot machines as vending machines, put a two-cent federal revenue stamp on each machine, and programmed some of them to dispense chewing gum.

In the summer of 1909, San Francisco passed a city ordinance outlawing slot machines altogether. The ban spelled an end to the operation of 3,200 slot machines with annual gross revenues of $12 million (approximately $297 million in 2010).[26] Two years later, lawmaker William P. Kennedy introduced an anti-slot machine bill to the California state legislature. According to an article in The San Francisco Call, the terms of the bill were “such to sound the knell of slot machine gambling in the state of California.”[27] The same article also reported on the discovery of a $5,000 fund for the purpose of defeating the bill. Contributors to the fund, as the article explained, included “the saloon and cigar men of the northern and southern parts of the state.”[28] Among them was Fey, who was identified as a manufacturer of nickel-in-the-slot machines at 1071 Mission Street, and who was even quoted in the article. Like others who were interviewed for the piece, he denied any financial involvement in the fund, explaining, “Personally, I never contributed a cent.”[29] He did, however, express tacit support for the goal of defeating, or at least amending, the proposed legislation. “As the bill stands, it makes it practically a felony to have the machines in your possession. We wanted it amended, if possible.” The efforts of this group failed, however; in 1911, California Governor Hiram Johnson signed a bill prohibiting the use of slot machines throughout the state. The bill effectively consigned all slot machines to the junk pile. In response, Fey cached numerous slot machines in his home on Broderick Street and relocated to Chicago, which replaced San Francisco as the capital of the slot machine industry.[30]

Fey found work in Chicago as a developer for the John Watlings Scale Company. It was not an unnatural move for someone with Fey’s experience – in many early slot machines, the coins inserted by players fell onto an internal balance scale, and there was always a chance that they would tip the scale and cause other coins to spill out. During Fey’s tenure, the Watlings Company started producing so-called Fey Scales and, inspired by that success, Fey decided to start manufacturing scales on his own. In 1912, he opened Pacific Scale Works with William F. Schmidt in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin.[31] Schmidt, the son of German immigrants from Baden, had been granted a patent for a merry-go-round-style “amusement device” back in 1909. At the time his patent application was filed (April 6, 1908), he was listed as a resident of Chicago. Thus, it would appear that Fey met Schmidt in Chicago, and that the two decided to move to Wisconsin to found Pacific Scale Works, which operated there until 1916. In 1912, the same year Pacific Scale Works was founded, Fey filed a patent application for a coin-operated weighing scale. The patent was granted on November 4, 1913. The following year, Fey and his son, Edmund, returned to San Francisco to found Charles Fey & Company Weighing Scales on 585 Mission Street. In 1919, after the end of World War I, the company was renamed Charles Fey & Son. Edmund, who had just returned from the war, took over its management.[32]

The Start of Prohibition

Like the anti-gambling movement, the prohibition movement had a significant impact on broad areas of public life, especially ones that were critical to Fey’s business. This time, however, it was not the machines themselves that were at the center of the debate, but rather the saloons in which they were located. Political enthusiasm for prohibition had already been building in the lead up to America’s entry into World War I in April 1917, and the start of the war brought renewed calls to end the waste of grain in the production of alcoholic beverages. Much of the increased hostility was directed toward German-American brewers, who, according to the Anti-Saloon League, “have rendered thousands of men inefficient and are thus crippling the Republic in its war on Prussian militarism.”[33] On August 1, 1917, the United States Senate paved the way for the passage of the 18th Amendment, which, as stipulated by the War Prohibition Act (or Volstead Act) of November 1918, outlawed the manufacture, distribution, sale, and use of alcohol. The amendment took effect on January 16, 1920.

With the closure of legal saloons across the nation, their illegal counterpart, known as the “speakeasy,” cropped up almost everywhere. Fortunately for men like Fey, speakeasies often boasted a generous line-up of slot machines. Proprietors were eager to have them in their establishments, not least because they provided an essential source of revenue in uncertain times. During the Prohibition Era, slot machines were mainly operated as vending machines for gum, candy, and especially mint, which had a relatively long shelf life. Manufacturers replaced card symbols on reels with fruit symbols, and payout was either directly in merchandise or in trade checks or tokens.

Despite visible policy efforts to condemn slot machines, which were widely associated with vice, corruption, and organized crime, the Roaring Twenties brought greater demand for slot machines and an accompanying boom in the industry. And despite the best efforts of politicians and lawmakers, this growth trend continued into the early years of the Great Depression. In 1934, New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia personally presided over the dumping of almost 1,200 slot machines into the ocean, while the future Supreme Court Justice Earl Warren, then District Attorney of Alameda County, California, attempted to ban slot machines and prosecute those buying, selling, and using them. In 1933, the police raided Fey’s factory, seizing between 150 and 200 machines. None of this, however, could change the fact that people simply wanted an inexpensive escape from bleak times, and that they found it with a penny’s play at games of chance and skill. In 1931, when the national unemployment rate stood at 25%, small coins totaling $150 million ($2.15 billion in 2010) found their way into slot machines nationwide. Consequently, sales of slot machines reached record levels.

Throughout the years, Fey continued to innovate: in 1929, for example, he became the first slot machine manufacturer to modify a standard three-reel, nickel slot machine in such a way that it accepted a large silver dollar coin.[34] Though he remained an industry innovator, he was no longer an industry leader. That title belonged to Mills Novelty, the dominant firm in the slot machine industry for some sixty years. Other industry leaders included Caille Brothers Manufacturing Company, Watling Manufacturing Company, and O.D. Jennings. In the mid-1930s, pinball maker Ray Moloney joined the ranks of the slot machine manufacturers; his Bally Manufacturing Co. eventually replaced Mills Novelty as the industry leader. In 1933, Fey’s company incorporated as Charles Fey Manufacturing, with Charles Fey as president, Edmund Fey as vice president, and Fey’s long-time employee Albert Quast as secretary-treasurer. On January 28, 1944, five days short of his 82nd birthday, Charles Fey retired.[35] He sold his company to Quast. Ten months later, on November 4, 1944, he died of pneumonia in San Francisco, California.

Social Status, Family, and Personality

It is difficult to arrive at any assessment of Fey’s personality and private life. It would appear, however, that his personal interests and hobbies were entirely synonymous with the design and building of slot machines. In this respect, his personal and business interests were one and the same. In terms of social status, it is difficult to compare Fey with other German-born entrepreneurs who made their marks, and their fortunes, in industries such as banking or retailing. For most of Fey’s career, the inventions and products that he was known for – i.e. slot machines – were either outright illegal or associated with myriad vices, including alcohol, tobacco, and loose morals. At a time when the anti-gambling movement, the Anti-Saloon League, and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union were gaining strength, Fey’s profession would not have won him the respect of his upstanding middle-class peers; nor would it have put him in particularly good stead in San Francisco society. Indeed, aside from a brief notice that his daughters Alma and Elsie attended a “linen party” for a “Miss Georgia Farhner,”[36] there is virtually no mention of Fey or his family in the city newspaper, The San Francisco Call, between 1900 and 1911, the year he left for Chicago.[37] There is also no indication that he sat on the boards of various organizations, donated to charitable causes, or participated in genteel events with other business owners and men of means. Rather, he appears to have operated in a very different world: the rough-and-tumble world of gambling, saloons, and cigar shops. But within this world and during this time (which one author aptly described as “straightforward man-to-man days”[38]), Fey seems to have commanded the respect of his peers. Apparently, after deconstructing one of Fey’s Liberty Bell machines, his competitor Herbert Mills could only marvel at the compact size of the internal gambling device.[39] Decades later, Fey still enjoyed the esteem of both friends and competitors alike – in 1937, for example, the National Association of Coin-Operated Machine Manufacturers honored Fey’s “Golden Anniversary” in the industry at their annual convention. On that same occasion, his friend and competitor, Joe Huber, President of Huber Coin Machine Sales Company, took out an advertisement in which he wished Fey well and offered his warmest congratulations. Huber’s message, “We all love Charlie – Who in the hell doesn’t,” at once conveyed both the masculine bravado of the industry as a whole and the affection its members shared for Fey.

Today, Fey’s legacy is advanced mostly by his grandsons Marshall (born 1928) and Franklin (born 1929) Fey. Marshall Fey is the author of numerous publications on his grandfather and the slot machine industry in general, some of which were sources for the present article. From 1958 until 2006, Marshall and Franklin Fey operated the Liberty Belle Restaurant and Saloon in Reno, Nevada. There, in addition to dining, patrons could view the brothers’ slot machine collection, which was considered by many to be the finest in the world. When the restaurant closed in 2006, the bulk of the Feys’ collection was sold at auction. The brothers did, however, keep twenty-nine unique slot machines, which they offered on loan to the Nevada State Museum.[40]

Immigrant Entrepreneurship

By the time Fey arrived in America, he had already worked for three different instrument manufacturers in three different European countries: first, he had worked for the Munich Plow Company, then for an intercom equipment manufacturer in Amiens, France, and finally in the nautical instruments department of a London shipyard. These positions helped Fey acquire technical know-how that he eventually put to good use in the development of the slot machine. Additionally, Fey’s relatively long stay in London – he was there for five years – allowed him to save a bit of money and to acquire the English language skills required to succeed in America. Thus, he arrived in the U.S. in a relatively fortunate position. Moreover, he also had the benefit of having a close relative – in his case, his mother’s brother – who had already immigrated to the United States. Like many newly arrived immigrants, Fey took advantage of his family ties and lived with his uncle during his first months in America.

While it is difficult to gauge the extent to which Fey benefitted from ethnic networks, it is telling that he married the daughter of two German immigrants. Furthermore, it is significant that his father-in-law, Christian Volkmar, ran a cigar business, for many slot machines were located on the counters of cigar shops. This being the case, it is conceivable that Christian Volkmar may have put one of Fey’s early machines in his own shop or used his network of contacts to find other proprietors who were willing to do so. Since Volkmar died in 1897, any assistance he may have given Fey would have been limited to the very earliest period of his career – the years 1894-1897 – but this would have been precisely the time when Fey’s fledging business needed help the most.

It is also worth mentioning that Fey’s business associates were, without exception, either German immigrants or Americans of German descent. Gustav Friedrich Wilhelm Schultze, who was Fey’s colleague at California Electric Works and then his slot machine competitor, was a first generation German immigrant, as was Fey’s first business partner Theodor Holtz. William F. Schmidt, Fey’s partner in the Wisconsin-based Pacific Scale Works, was a second generation German immigrant, and Albert Quast, Fey’s long-time foreman and eventual successor as owner of Charles Fey Manufacturing, was an American of German descent.

It is unclear when, or even whether, Fey became a naturalized U.S. citizen. According to the 1910 U.S. Census, Fey arrived in 1885 and was a naturalized citizen.[41] But in his September 26, 1912, patent application for a coin-operated weighing scale, Fey identified himself as “Charles August Fey, a subject of the Emperor of Germany, residing at Fond du Lac, in the county of Fond du Lac and [the] State of Wisconsin.”


In 1885, twenty-three-year old German immigrant Charles August Fey arrived in San Francisco, then the capital of the nation’s coin-machine industry. Over the course of a successful career that extended into the 1940s, Fey made significant contributions to the development of America’s gaming industry. He is remembered today as the creator of the modern slot machine and as the “Thomas Edison of slots.”[42] Fey’s success was largely attributable to his keen business sense and strong technical know-how. Just as important, however, was his ability to continually respond to changes and challenges – whether they took the form of industry competitors, the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, or the rise of the anti-gambling movement. In the absence of copyright protection for his inventions, Fey kept a close watch on his slot machines, never selling or even leasing them, but rather installing them in saloons and other establishments on the basis of a 50/50 revenue sharing agreement with proprietors. This business model proved sound and eventually allowed Fey to expand throughout the San Francisco Bay area. Although Fey enjoyed success beyond the confines of San Francisco – and even worked in Chicago and founded a company in Wisconsin – he always remained loyal to the city of immigrants, risk takers, and fortune seekers that had given him his first start. Today, Charles August Fey and his famous Liberty Bell slot machine are commemorated by a plaque on San Francisco’s Crown-Zellerbach building, which sits in the spot once occupied by his workshop at 406 Market Street.


[1] The authors like to thank the following organizations or individuals for their generous support: the Cameron University Academic Research Support Center, the Nevada State Museum, Stadt Vöhringen in Germany, Alvis E. Hendley, NoeHill, and Marshall Fey.

[2] Alois Schmid, “Maximilian III. Joseph,” in Neue Deutsche Biographie 16 (1990), (accessed on October 15, 2011).

[3] Stadt Vöhringen, Geschichte. Vöhringen von gestern bis heute (2011), (accessed on October 15, 2011).

[4] Gerhard Reiter, Geschichte im Landkreis Neu-Ulm (Vöhringen: Stadt Vöhringen, 1999), 131-32.

[5] Marshall Fey, Slot Machines: America’s Favorite Gaming Device, 6th ed. (Reno, NV: Liberty Belle Books, 2002), 37-38; “Slot Machines History: Who Is Charles Fey?” (2011), (accessed on October 17, 2011); Reiter, Geschichte im Landkreis Neu-Ulm, 132-33.

[6] Peter Tamony, “The One-Armed Bandit,” Western Folklore 27 (April 1968): 118.

[7] This information comes from the San Francisco City Directory for 1891.

[8] Fey, Slot Machines: America’s Favorite Gaming Device, 38-39; Reiter, Geschichte im Landkreis Neu-Ulm, 134; Tamony, “The One-Armed Bandit,” 118-19.

[9]Curators’ Favorites, the Gumball Slot Machine” (2008), (accessed on August 28, 2012).

[10] Marshall Fey, Slot Machines: A Pictorial History of the First 100 Years (Reno, NV: Liberty Belle Books, 1991), 37-84; Reiter, Geschichte im Landkreis Neu-Ulm, 135.

[11] Holtz also founded his own company, Novelty Machine Works. A short advertisement for his company appeared in The San Francisco Call on May 29, 1904. The advertisement read: INVENTION models, special tools, punches and dies: small articles manufactured at Novelty Machine Works, 278 Jessie St, near Fourth.

[12] Marshall Fey, “Charles Fey and San Francisco’s Liberty Bell Slot Machine,” California Historical Quarterly 54 (Spring 1975): 57.

[13] Mark Dickerson and John O’Connor, Gambling as an Addictive Behaviour (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2006), p. 5.

[14] Don Catlin, “Piece of History: It All Began with the Fey Family in the Late 1800s,” Strictly Slots (March 2007): 18-19; Fey, Slot Machines: America’s Favorite Gaming Device, 40; and Howard Herz, “End of an Era: The Liberty Belle,” Casino Chip and Token News (Spring 2006): 25-28.

[15] Fey, “Charles Fey and San Francisco’s Liberty Bell Slot Machine,” 57; and Edwin Silberstang, The Winner’s Guide to Casino Gambling (New York, NY: Henry Holt and Company, 2005), 338.

[16] Tamony, “The One-Armed Bandit,” 118.

[17] Catlin, “Piece of History,” 22.

[18] Fey, “Charles Fey and San Francisco’s Liberty Bell Slot Machine,” 57.

[19] See, Schultze v. Holtz et al., decided August 23, 1897, in Decisions of the Commissioner of Patents and of United States Courts in Patent Cases, 1897. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1898, pp. 781-82. For more on this subject, see “Didn’t Patent It,” Deming Examiner, New Mexico (October 1961): 3; William N. Thompson, Gambling in America: An Encyclopedia of History, Issues, and Society (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2001), 33.

[20] Fey, Slot Machines: America’s Favorite Gaming Device, 41; Fey, “Charles Fey and San Francisco’s Liberty Bell Slot Machine,” 57.

[21] Tamony, “The One-Armed Bandit,” 121.

[22] Catlin, “Piece of History,” 22; Fey, Slot Machines: America’s Favorite Gaming Device, 41-47; and Frank Scoblete, Break the One-Armed Bandits: How to Come out Ahead When You Play the Slots (Chicago, IL: Bonus Books, 1994), 13.

[23] Fey, Slot Machines: America’s Favorite Gaming Device, 13.

[24] Rufus King, “The Rise and Decline of Coin-Machine Gambling,” The Journal of Criminal Law, Criminology, and Police Science 55 (June 1964): 200.

[25] Marfels, “Slot Machine Play in America,” 68.

[26] All current values (in 2010 USD) are based on Samuel H. Williamson, “Seven Ways to Compute the Relative Value of a U.S. Dollar Amount, 1774 to present,” MeasuringWorth, 2011, using the Consumer Price Index.

[27] “Slot Machine Men Toss up the Sponge,” The San Francisco Call, February 26, 1911, p. 24.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Roger Dunstan, Gambling in California (California State Library: California Research Bureau, January 1997); Scoblete, Break the One-Armed Bandits, 15-16; and Tamony, “The One-Armed Bandit,” 120-22.

[31] Fey may have had some connections in Wisconsin; some scholars have suggested that he made a brief stop in Wisconsin during his 1885 journey from New Jersey to California. See Tamony, “The One-Armed Bandit,” p. 119; and Coin Machine Review (January 1937).

[32] Crocker-Langley San Francisco City Directories 1919, (accessed on November 23, 2011); Fey, Slot Machines: America’s Favorite Gaming Device, 64-67; and Scoblete, Break the One-Armed Bandits, 14-15.

[33] Lynn Dumeni, The Modern Temper: American Culture and Society in the 1920s (New York, NY: Hill and Wang, 1995), 230.

[34] Charles Fey Exhibition, Nevada State Museum, Carson City, NV, (accessed on August 31, 2012).

[35] Fey, Slot Machines: America’s Favorite Gaming Device, 68.

[36] The San Francisco Call, April 9, 1911.

[37] One exception, of course, being the aforementioned article in which Fey was accused of being involved with a fund to defeat the anti-gambling bill before the California legislature. This, however, was not exactly positive press. “Slot Machine Men Toss up the Sponge,” The San Francisco Call, February 26, 1911, p. 24.

[38] Tamony, “The One-Armed Bandit,” 121.

[39] Fey, “Charles Fey and San Francisco’s Liberty Bell Slot Machine,” 58.

[40] “Slot Machines: The Fey Collection on Exhibit at Nevada State Museum,” Nevada State Museums Newsletter, Volume XXXVII, Number 1 (February 2007)

[41] 1910 United States Federal Census [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations Inc, 2006. Source Citation: Year:1910;Census Place:San Francisco Assembly District 38,San Francisco,California;Roll:T624_99;Page:4A;Enumeration District:0202;Image:955;FHL microfilm:1374112.

[42] He was proclaimed the “Thomas Edison of Slots” by his industry peers at the 1937 convention of the National Association of Coin Operated Machine Manufacturers.

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title Charles August Fey
  • Coverage 1862-1944
  • Tony Wohlers
  • Author Eric Schmaltz
  • Website Name Immigrant Entrepreneurship
  • URL
  • Access Date July 17, 2024
  • Publisher German Historical Institute
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update August 22, 2018