#54 Vending Machines - Past to Present

Written by Food Non-Fiction June 23, 2016

Hey Food Buffs, this episode is all about vending machines. You have all probably used a vending machine before - you put in a coin, bill, or credit card, select your item, and out it comes. It’s the quickest purchase you can make. This convenient system for buying things started out with very crude machinery and lots of hurdles to overcome. This is the story of that journey.

The earliest reference to a vending machine is from Egypt. In a book called “Pneumatika” that dates back to the 1st century AD, there is a detailed description and a picture of a device, which dispensed water when you put in a five-drachma coin. Juuuust take a look at the picture in the article banner - it looks like that. This was invented for dispensing equal amounts of sacrificial water at Egyptian temples. This was a source of money for the Egyptian temples, and it also made sure everyone got the same amount of holy water. Here is how it worked: Imagine a teeter totter. When a coin was dropped into the holy water dispenser, it fell on one end of the teeter totter, causing the other end to lift up, also opening a little exit which let the holy water out. As the teeter totter moved down on the side with the coin, the coin eventually fell off. Once the coin fell, the teeter totter reset and the water exit closed. Unfortunately, one of these devices has never been found, so we don’t know if this was just a design concept or if it was actually used. In fact, we’re not even sure who invented it. It’s possible that the author of the book, Hero of Alexandria, invented it. It’s also possible that one of his predecessors, Ctesibius, invented it.

After that, it wasn’t until the 1600s that more vending machines were introduced to the world. Around 1615, you could get tobacco from coin operated devices in English taverns and inns. Here’s how the tobacco device worked. When you put your coin in, it pressed a trigger that popped open the lid. These were very crude vending machines. After each use, you had to manually close it again. And you also had to watch to make sure people didn’t take everything in the box, because when the lid was open, you could just take all the tobacco.

The next version of vending machines also appeared in England. We like to tell our stories in chronological order, so now we’re in the 1800s. Richard Carlile was a publisher and a bookseller who believed in freedom of the press. He had been arrested for selling political texts, so in 1822 he created a book vending machine, hoping to avoid more legal charges that way - because it would be the machine selling the books, not him. Anyhow, the courts did not agree with that logic, and he was still held responsible for selling the books.

stamp vending machine
stamp vending machine
[credit: Tonya Stinson CC]

Moving on to 1857, we get the first patent for a fully automatic vending machine. It was called “A Self Acting Machine for the Delivery of Postage and Receipt Stamps”. That didn’t take off either.

Finally, in England, 1883, we get a more successful vending machine. That year, Percival Everitt got his patent for a vending machine which dispensed postcards. With that vending machine, people could finally buy postcards when shops were closed.

In 1888, the Adams Gum Company installed vending machines on the platforms of rail stations in New York. These vending machines were designed to sell Tutti-Frutti gum, and inspired the creation of more vending machines that sold small snacks like candy and peanuts. Gum was a great product to sell because it was cheap, it lasted a long time, and they came with no health concerns. Gum can also take a good amount of abuse. You can drop it without it breaking it, and it doesn’t melt when it gets hot out - the way chocolate bars do - so quality control was not an issue.

Tutti Frutti vending machine
Tutti Frutti vending machine

In 1911, many of the big players in the vending machine business started to merge together to become the Autosales Gum and Chocolate Company. This company combined the major players in the chewing gum business, together holding 250 names and brands, and the major players in the vending machine making business, together controlling many patents and wide distribution. The idea behind the Autosales Gum and Chocolate Company was that their vending machines would sell small versions of the goods they wanted people to buy over the counter. The vending machines were a way to market the goods.

But vending machines still had a long way to go. The vending machine industry has been plagued with bad behaviour since the start. People abuse the machines. People hit vending machines when they don’t get their purchased item, they plug the coin slots with random objects for fun, drunk people pour beer into the coin slot, and people also use other objects to mimic coins - these mimics are called “slugs”. Slugs were a really big problem, especially in the early 1900s when vending machines were not great at identifying fake coins. Infact...kind of hilariously...vending machines got a lot of slugs when they were placed near factories where objects from the factory could be put into the coin slot. For example, having a vending machine near a button factory is not a good idea because people put buttons into the coin slot! Also, factories have mechanics and mechanics found it easy to make slugs.

In the 1940s vending machines improved their system for checking for slugs. Coins went through multiple tests before they were accepted by the machines. First, the vending machines would test the size of the coin. Then they tested for iron and steel with a magnet - if the coin was magnetic, it would be returned. Then the coin was tested for the proper weight. Then the coin was tested with metallurgy to check for the right composition (for example foreign currency was sometimes used and this test would uncover that). Real coins passed these 4 tests within a fraction of a second. 

So now we’re in the post-WWII period and this is when vending machines really start to make an impact. We gave Tim Sanford a call to tell us the story of what happens next. He is the extremely knowledgeable editor-in-chief of Vending Times. As Tim explained it, many new factories were built during the Second World War - lots of these were built in areas where there was nowhere to buy food nearby. Vending machines were an easy solution for providing a place to get food. 

Interestingly enough, when vending machines started selling meals, that helped promote the use of microwave ovens. Vending machines that sold food were accompanied by microwave ovens. So you would buy your food, take off the wrapper and then heat it up in the microwave oven. You were even allowed to bring food from home and use the microwave oven for free. So people became more familiar with microwave ovens through using them alongside vending machines. And people started to buy them.

Vending operators had a great business going, and the machines advanced to have heating and cooling systems. These were no longer just snack machines - they were also meal machines. 

But throughout vending machine history and even today, people have been suspicious of vending machine food. I was too...until now. You look at a sandwich in a vending machine and you wonder how long it’s been sitting there. For whatever reason, you just assume that the vending machine sandwich is not as good as the same one you can find in the cafeteria. Actually, the vending machine sandwich is probably in better condition than the refrigerated cafeteria sandwich. This is because people are constantly opening and closing the refrigerator door in the cafeteria and maybe even picking up the sandwich and putting it back - all the while letting in warm air. At the same time, the vending machine sandwich is sitting untouched in a temperature-regulated cooling system that is being monitored real-time from an operator’s office. The vending industry knows there’s a bias against vending machine food so they’ve made efforts to show what’s going on inside the machines. Vending machines that sell snacks have a big glass front. And vending machines that brew coffee have the little window where you can see the beans and the grinding.

Today, vending is a very successful industry, but they have a hurdle to get over in order to progress. Tim believes that vending machines need to become a destination - not a last resort. 

Special Thanks to Our Interviewee:

Tim Sandford