The Surprising History of Vending Machines
Vending machines are a staple in our modern world, their metal and glass visages populating many a cramped and poorly lit hallway, offering convenience, junk food, and carbonated drinks, all at slightly higher than gas station prices. Recently here at UMSL, a few people were charged up to 7 dollars for a soda, due to an error with digital payment. Though this was remedied rather quickly, this 21st-century predicament left me with a question. How long have vending machines been around? The answer was surprising, to say the least.
The first-ever vending machine in recorded history is thought to have been created in Egypt in the first century C.E. This machine was invented by the engineer and mathematician Heron, in the city of Alexandria, and functioned similarly to vending machines of the modern-day. A customer would insert a coin, which would press down on a lever causing the machine to dispense holy water for a few seconds before the coin slid off, shutting down the machine. It is thought that this strange contraption was invented to prevent patrons of the temple from taking more holy water than they had purchased. Despite this groundbreaking advance in automated consumerism, Heron’s ideas didn’t catch on, and so once again, the world was devoid of vending machines. It would take 1500 years, and the Colombian exchange before they once again appeared in daily life, this time, 2000 miles away from Egypt, and stocking a product from the other side of the world.
In just a few short decades after it was first introduced to Europe, tobacco had become one of the largest enterprises in the early modern world. With its alleged medicinal properties and highly addictive nature, it soon became a mainstay in daily life. With the popularity of this product, there soon became a need to sell it everywhere, and so in the year 1615, the vending machine reappeared with the purpose of selling tobacco. These machines were coin-operated, similar to the one invented in Egypt, but had the distinct innovation of being portable, a trait that has not survived in modern versions. Though it’s unknown who invented this iteration, there are said to have been many of these machines dotting the various bars and pubs of England. This type of vending machine would eventually become one of the more popular forms, but not before falling out of fashion for another 300 years.
By the late 1800s vending machines with more familiar products were starting to make an appearance in nearly every industrial country. Fully automated machines in Britain sold newspapers, envelopes, and stamps. While the Stollwerck chocolate company in Germany, reportedly had as many as 15000 machines, solely for the purpose of dispensing chocolate.
In Paris, the first beverage vending machine was invented in 1890 and not for soda or water, as one might expect, but rather for alcohol, such as wine and beer. Around this time in Japan, a similar machine was created, solely for the purpose of dispensing sake, a popular alcoholic drink made from fermented rice. As an interesting side note, Japan would go on to have more vending machines than any other country in the world with an estimated 5 million, or one machine per every twenty-three people.
Though well-liked and numerous throughout the world, it isn’t until the year 1888 that the first modern vending machines appeared in the United States. These machines, owned and operated by the Thomas Adams Gum Company, dispensed gum as the company name implies, and were installed in various subway stations throughout New York City.
The 20th century was the golden age of vending machine innovation, with a shift towards the types of products one would normally see in vending machines today. For instance, in the early 1920s, the first soda machine was introduced, offering the popular soft drink Coca-Cola, which would go on to become nearly synonymous with the practice of vending as a whole.
Coffee, despite being enjoyed since the Middle Ages, was a bit farther behind, with the first automated coffee machine being introduced in the late 1940s. This machine, invented by the Rudd-Melikian company, used pre-ground coffee and water heated by the machine to make a cup of coffee in less than five seconds. These machines proved popular, and just a year after they were invented, the president of the Rudd-Melikian company, Lloyd K. Rudd, estimated that as many as 250,000 cups of coffee were dispensed from these machines daily.
The 1960s saw the introduction of the first machine to take paper bills as payment, an innovation used in nearly every modern machine. Shortly after that, engineer John Greenwick invented the Multi-Drop Bus, which allowed vending machines all over the world to be calibrated to use country-specific currencies.
Despite its nearly thousand-year history, it wasn’t till the 1970s that perhaps the most iconic vending machine was introduced. The snack vending machine was created by the company Polyvend, to vend shelf-stable snacks. This type of machine combined with the aforementioned beverage machines, make up half of the global vending machine market.
The 21st century has seen some useful innovations in vending technology as well. For example, in 2013 the company Carvana introduced the first car vending machine in Atlanta, and they have gone on to open a further 23 throughout the United States. On the more expensive side, Singaporean car dealership Autobahn Motors introduced their 15 stories tall luxury car vending machine in late 2016.
On the less expensive side, Swedish company GoLibrary invented a vending machine exclusively for library books, that has proved popular throughout the country. In 2008, these library vending machines were introduced to the U.S. state of California, in Yuba County, and parts of the San Francisco Bay Area, but have yet to catch on throughout the country.
Nowadays, there are an estimated 15 million vending machines of several types around the world. For perspective, there are more vending machines than people in Greece, which had a population of 10.72 million as of 2020. So, it’s safe to say that the humble vending machine, even with its occasional technological hiccup, has found a concrete place within our modern society.
Bellis, Mary. "The History of Vending Machines." ThoughtCo, Aug. 28, 2020, thoughtco.com/the-history-of-vending-machines-1992599.
Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. "vending machine". Encyclopedia Britannica, 21 Jul. 2014, https://www.britannica.com/topic/vending-machine. Accessed 4 April 2022.