The vending machine has been a staple feature in popular society since the Industrial Revolution, representing principles of efficiency and independence through technology. From well-placed post-cards to self-service food, the introduction of vending machines represented just how convenient and affordable technology could be. The history of the vending machine is more than that of a task-filling machine, though: it shares a stage with Ancient Greek temples and the widespread fashion of Automat restaurants.
The first vending machine
Whilst modern vending machines were first manufactured in the late 19th Century, the first recorded example of a vending machine can be found two millennia before. Hero of Alexandria (also known as Heron, alive circa 10AD to 70AD), an Ancient Greek inventor, had designs for one in his book of inventions, Mechanics and Optics. Ever the innovator, Hero is also responsible for the first recorded evidence of a steam-engine and wind-power machine (it played a pipe organ).
The first vending machine was simple but brilliant. An inserted coin fell onto a platform lever that that opened a valve. When the weight of the coin tilted the lever down, the coin fell off and the counter-weight pulled it back into position, closing the valve. What did it dispense? Holy water: a device devised for use at temples to stop greedy worshippers taking more than their fair share of water. Sadly it would take a long time for such a clever device to resurface.
Vending Machines and the Industrial revolution
The vending machine was not conceived of again until the 19th century, when the streets became flooded with inventors desperate to complete patents on new devices. The earliest popular vending machines were used for postcards and snuff in London, but it was not until the 1880s that they really caught on. Held back by the possibility of abuse by fake coins, vending machines finally rose in popularity when mechanisms were invented to detect forgeries.
The first vending machines credited in the US emerged in 1888, from the Thomas Adam Gum Company. These machines were installed on elevated subway platforms in New York with the all-important task of providing travellers with chewing gum. As the designs became more intricate and interactive, animated figures and games were added to encourage purchases, with the first animated machines recorded in 1897. These vending machines were not only the root of the everyday machines we see today, but also paved the way for coin-operated games such as pinball machines and slot machines.
Automat Restaurants in the early 20th Century
One of the most widespread and life-affecting uses of vending machines was the emergence of automatic restaurants: cafes where the customer used a vending machine to serve themselves. Providing cheap food in desperate times, these caught on in a huge way in America, though they had their roots in Europe.
In 1895, the world’s first automatic restaurant was opened in a zoo in Berlin, using vending machines to supply the clientele. The idea quickly spread, with similar restaurants soon appearing in France, England and Russia. It was a visitor to St Petersburg who helped spread the idea to America, when reporting on the restaurant Quisisana in 1901.
Inspired by these reports, the first Horn & Hardart Automat opened in June 1902, Philadelphia, and was followed by one in New York, 1912. The cafeterias featured pre-cooked food behind glass-windows with coin-operated slots. Large meals were available for low-prices, and the self-service saved money on tipping. The only staff customers had to interact with were the “nickel-throwers”, cashiers on hand to give change.
The convenience of the vending machine restaurants made them a huge hit in the US, and Horn & Hardart eventually became one of the world’s largest restaurant chains, serving as many as 800,000 people in a day. Their iconic image was even immortalised by the famous paintings of Edward Hopper in the early 20th Century, the lonely sterility of automats forming the backdrop of some of his most memorable images.
Vending Machines in the later 20th Century
Automats remained popular until the 1970s, when fast-food restaurants started to take over the business, requiring less staff and providing a greater variety of food. They are a seldom-found novelty now (though still popular in parts of Europe). But alongside the Automat, vending machines catered for more than just food. Gumball machines, soft-drink dispensers and cigarette dispensers all paralleled the automatic restaurant. It was serious business: by the 1950s, vending machines were even selling life insurance policies at airports, covering flyers in case of a crash.