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#54 Vending Machines - Past to Present

Food Non-Fiction

Release Date: 06/23/2016

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This episode is about vending machines. The first reference to a vending machine is from the 1st century AD in Egypt. The reference is in a book called “Pneumatika”, written by Hero of Alexandria. In it, there is a detailed description and a picture of a device, which dispensed water when you put in a five-drachma coin.

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. 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.

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.

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 before becoming the $43 billion industry it is today. 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. 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.

Vending machines really took off in the post-WWII period. They were a convenient way to feed the workers in the factories. Factories also earned commission from vending machine sales.

Over time, the technology became more sophisticated. Today, machines are great at detecting fake money, operators can monitor the machines remotely, sensors and machine-learning reduce the energy usage by turning off things like the lighting when there are no customers, and machines can take credit cards.

The next step for the vending machine industry is to make vending machines a destination, rather than a last resort. Touch screen video displays and other interactive features are being added that are making vending machines much more fun.

Thank you to our Interviewees:

Tim Sanford - Editor-in-Chief of Vending Times

Dr. Michael Kasavana - National Automatic Merchandising Association Endowed Professor

Thanks to Looperman Artists for the Music: 

happily ever after strings perfect for movie score by nbeats26

Whats Goin Down by rasputin1963

Strings Universal - RIP Old Friend by MINOR2GO

Funky Guitar by Neems 1 by Neems