Like it or not, gambling has been part of Australian cultural life for over 200 years. Attitudes, traditions and practices were transported and transplanted here along with the convict cargo, but Australia soon developed its own forms of gambling.

Gambling was very much a feature of the Industrial Revolution. It was reliant on working people having a disposable income to spend and the leisure time in which to spend it. The many types of betting and gaming that became popular in the 19th century in Australia, England and America included fan tan, pak-ah-pu, bingo, black jack, cards, horse racing, greyhound racing, and games of chance.

Harlem Blackbird Nat Cole playing a poker machine, 1955 (State Library of NSW)

But those in authority tended to have an ambivalent attitude towards gambling, teetering between toleration and punishment. For the most part, gambling was considered to be a social problem usually based on a dim perception of the working classes and what they got up to. But while gambling was generally condemned, not all its forms were declared illegal.

But to the topic at hand: poker machines.

Poker machines can trace their history to the ‘slot machine’ invented in America by Charles Fey in the late 19th century. They were also called ‘fruit machines’, ‘jackpot machines’ and ‘poker machines’, and were nicknamed the ‘one armed bandit’ because of they way they were played.

Poker machines offers the player a  game of chance: a machine has three reels with up to 10 pictures on each which spin when a coin is inserted, and a lever is pulled or a button is pushed. The machines ‘pay out’ or ‘jackpot’ when three pictures to line up vertically.

Although poker machines were illegal in NSW until 1956, some of the first poker machines were imported here from Chicago  in 1929 by Lionel L Smith of Automatic Machines Ltd. The machines were installed in various pubs and hotels around Sydney, and protection money was collected from the publications as immunity from prosecution. When the poker machines were removed from these drinking establishments – they were outlawed under both the Liquor Act and the Gaming Act – the Hospitals Commission was approached.

The plan was  to install the ‘fruit machines’ in the State’s hospitals as a way of raising funds. This plan soon came unstuck and it led to a royal commission into  fruit machines and greyhound racing, and NSW Premier Jack Lang’s policy of  raising Government funding through revenue from gambling. But after 1956, when poker machines became legal, they became a socially acceptable form of gambling and the associated stigma faded. Today, the NSW Government rakes in millions of dollars from the proceeds from gambling, around 75% from clubs and the rest from pubs.