Did you know that if not for the vending machines, you would probably not be playing pinball, even on your smartphone? Or that the first product sold on a vending machine was not some snack or soda but… holy water? Check out our brief history of vending machines for more interesting trivia!
Where it all began
As unexpected as it might seem, the history of vending machines takes us back to the beginning of our era. In the 1st century, Greek mathematician Hero of Alexandria, considered one of the greatest Antiquity experimenters, wrote about a novel way to dispense holy water in Egyptian temples in his book “Mechanics and Optics”.
When a visitor inserted the coin, it fell onto a pan which was attached to the lever. That opened up a valve, letting holy water flow. The weight of a coin would pull down the pan until the coin fell off. Then the counterweight would pull the lever up, shutting down the holy stream till the next deposit was made.
The birth of the modern vending machine
Though inventive and effective, this vending machine did not find its place neither in religious nor commercial setting until the Industrial Revolution. In fact it was here in London, United Kingdom, that the first coin-operated vending machines were put to the public use at the end of the 19th century. And the thing they were dispensing was neither holy nor any other kind of water, as London had plenty of it coming down from the sky on a daily basis. Yet the goods they sold were not the umbrellas either. The machines sold… post cards!
Meanwhile across the Atlantic, Thomas Adams Gum Company decided to make the journeys sweeter by selling chewing gum on New York City train platforms. After a while, small figurines were added to the machine that came alive every time a transaction was completed. This soon proved to be a catchy way to increase sales and lead to the development of slot machines and pinball.
Product selection expands rapidly
Yet it was only in the 1920s that vending machines were stocked with soft drinks and cigarettes. Although vending of the latter has been banned in the UK since 2011, thus ending a big chapter in vending machine history, soft drinks still hold the top position on the list of the most popular vending machine products in the UK.
At this time in the US, the first restaurant offering vended products was launched and had been successfully serving thirsty and hungry customers for more than next 40 years.
In 1937, the first sip of vended Coca-Cola was taken. Now there is nearly a million vending machines for this soft drink in Japan only!
Right after WWII, coffee vending machines were introduced, and a few years later you could get a refrigerated sandwich along with your coffee too.
The 1950s-70s was an era of life insurance vending machines at the airports. This proved to by rather profitable as plane crashes were rare. In the late 70s, first talking vending machine was introduced that would politely say “thank you” and deliver a comic one-liner after the purchase. Though this feature didn’t get popular, the evolution of vending machines continued.
The 90s saw vending machines entering the fast moving consumer goods market, and their specialization increasing. Various coffee flavours, espresso and cappuccino became available for the first time in the ever-growing hot drinks vending machine market.
During the last decade of the 20th century, milk and even egg vending machines started to emerge as a cost-efficient way for farmers to sell their products in urban areas.
At the same time, with the increasing popularity of mobile devices, chargeboxes entered the market with big success. Vending machines started accepting bills and credit cards, grew more sophisticated and reliable. Even medical supplies could be bought this way. Of course, prescription drugs required some form of identification, usually by finger-print or retina-scan. Right now as you read this article, medical marijuana is being sold in vending machines in some American states. And after the legalization of recreational marijuana in 2012, nobody would be surprised to see a pot vending machine in Colorado or Washington sometime soon.
The specialization of vending machines tends to grow as new products and technologies are introduced on a daily basis, therefore the history of vending machines is nowhere near its end. Just look at what is happening in UK right now.