“We started out some time ago with a machine for selling prophylactic goods. Maybe we ought to have been shot for that.” I. W. Schulman
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Scoring a 7 on the Volcanic Explosivity Index, the eruption of Indonesia’s Mt. Tambora in 1815 was a global disaster. On the plus side, ejecta suffused throughout the stratosphere, making sunsets and twilights brilliant and sparkly for months. On the other hand: tsunamis, global cooling, extreme weather events, and worldwide famine. 1816 became known as “The Year Without a Summer” to some, and “Poverty Year” and “Eighteen Hundred and Froze to Death” to others.
Richard Carlile, then a 25 year-old English tinsmith, lost his job in the ensuing economic collapse and was radicalized. He went from metallurgist to agitator, advocating for universal suffrage and selling Thomas Paine pamphlets—which landed him in jail. There, his self-preservation instinct kicked in, and in 1822 he had the ingenious idea to let a machine sell the subversive pamphlets: “The purchaser enters and turns the hand of the dial to the publication he wants, when, on depositing his money, the publication drops down before him.” Carlile assumed that the responsibility for criminal pamphleteering would thus lie with the machine. Unfortunately, he didn’t account for the ironclad logic of the 19th century English penal system. His associate was jailed and the machine was never heard from again.
And that is how a volcanic eruption led to the first vending machine. Actually, not quite. A few coin-operated cigar boxes existed in England by the early 1800s. Some of al-Jazari’s automatons from last week operated on vending machine principles even if they were free. And standard histories will tell you that—when he wasn’t inventing the steam engine—Hero of Alexandria created the first vending machine in the first century AD. It dispensed holy water, powered by the weight of the coin offered.
Of course, even that probably wasn’t the first. There are potentially apocryphal stories going back centuries before Hero about vending machines in temples. There, the worshiper would lay down a coin, the weight of which set in motion a device that pumped steam through (unseen) bamboo pipes and into the eyes of whatever effigy was being worshipped, making them appear to cry. This devious miracle would, in theory, spur the awed devotee to further donations.
Now, presumably vending machines were used in the 1.5 millennia between Hero and Carlile, but there’s a huge historical gap there. There’s even a gap after Carlile: the first patent for a vending machine wasn’t issued until 1857, for a stamp-dispensing device that never came to fruition. It wasn’t until 1888 that the vending machine came to America, when Tutti-Frutti gum was sold for a penny in New York rail stations.
The Early Period
For the next four decades vending machines became ever more ubiquitous. The big seller was gum, but other staples included peanuts, perfume (said by Scientific American to “serve as a thin mask for bodily uncleanliness”), and water. Chilled water was doled out for a penny a drink, until in the early 1900s public health officials became alarmed at the use of communal cups. The unimaginatively named Public Cup Vendor Company then designed a disposable cup dispenser; later they became the even less imaginatively named Individual Drink Cup Company; later still they dropped the water altogether and became Dixie.
Another popular item were penny weigh scales. In the 1920s, one manufacturer listed revenue at $4.5 million, or 31 cents per scale per day. The revolution in scale design was in printing the weight surreptitiously on a ticket, rather than broadcasting it (visually or auditorily) to the public (as one flack coarsely put it: “No woman living will submit to a public announcement of the fact”) . Of course, the first attempt at ticket printing included horoscopes in addition to the weight, but the predictions were not uniformly positive. Customers subsequently “demanded that news of the future be exclusively good news” and began to “threaten violence.” A new set of all-positive fortunes was quickly printed. And as an interesting side note: despite the default assumption that only women would use the scales, one department store that tracked use found it was more often used by men than women.
The rise of vending machines coincided—probably not coincidentally—with the fetishization of Taylorist management techniques; the relentless and ruthless focus on “efficiency” and “productivity” at all times. The impersonal efficiency of the vending machine—one trade publication called food machines “depersonalized feeders”—was a Taylorist’s dream. “Men are glad to turn such sales over to real automatons made of steel and glass,” the devotees said. The robots will save us all from menial labor!
The Middle Period
The promised robot utopia never happened, and the bottom fell out of the vending industry in the 1930s. Was it the depression? Probably. But I have an alternate theory. We’ve been presented many visions of our dystopic future: totalitarian doublespeak in 1984, drug-induced eugenic euphoria in Brave New World; depersonalized Taylorist hyper-efficiency in Zamyatin’s We; global warming-spurred regression to a sort of atavistic lizard-brain state in Ballard’s The Drowned World; brutal religious oppression in The Handmaid’s Tale; the nuclear wasteland, zombie apocalypse, and global pandemic; The Road and The Road Warrior; game shows about hunting people for sport; farming the organs of poor people for transplant (might have made that last one up).
But ponder now the 1933 World’s Fair, tagline A Century of Progress, and the McGillcuddy’s Excret-O-Mat Dystop-O-Luxe bathroom of the future contained therein: A pay toilet. A toilet paper vending machine. Toilet seat cover vending machine (“The possibilities of having advertising printed on the sani-cover paper is being investigated…”). A pay faucet. A soap vending machine, because “the average person doesn’t want soap that has been used by someone else.” A paper towel vending machine. Also a shoe-shine machine and pinball games for your post-evacuation amusement. If you want a vision of the future, imagine monetizing basic biological functions, forever.
Consider also the case of salt. In the 1930s, Morton made a campaign out of “heat fatigue” suffered by perspiring workers, and developed a salt tablet dispenser to be placed in factories. The Burel vending company later conspired with Morton to replace the salt dispensers (paid for by the employer) with peanut machines (paid by the employee). This was said to be some kind of dual victory, as plants “accepted the nut machines as a contribution to efficiency” while “workers who might dislike salt in the raw welcome its new companion.”
The second vending renaissance began in the 1940s. There were many causes, but perhaps the most important was the development of a satisfactory coffee machine, and the subsequent infiltration of vending machines into corporate offices and factories, and the normalization of the standard “coffee break.” That and cigarettes.
An Interlude on Technology
Once the concept of a vending machine came about, the trajectory is in some ways one of simply figuring out what products do and don’t work, either technologically or psychologically. For decades, a good hot cup of coffee was considered the holy grail, and hot meals and cold foods continually bedeviled inventors. Even live bait machines fell victim to minnows that died off too quickly. In the late 1930s, Clarence Saunders, erstwhile roundup subject and founder of Piggly Wiggly, had an idea for an automated grocery store that was ahead of its time both technically (it was mired in glitches) and psychologically (prodding produce and leaving a package of ground beef by the cereal when you realize you don’t want it turn out to be integral to the shopping experience). These among countless other ideas that never quite caught on.
Two of the more interesting endeavors of this kind are books and french fries. Allen Lane, who worked at Penguin, had in 1934 endeavored to make the paperback—then the last refuge of bad pulp fiction—into something more refined. The result was Penguin’s mass market reprints of classic literature, which served, at least in a broad sense, to make the paperback a viable book commodity. A few years later, his less successful idea was the Penguincubator, a book vending machine. Unfortunately it wasn’t successful, but book vending keeps reappearing, as the Read-O-Mat, Book-O-Mat, Vend-A-Book and VendAvon.
A more recent fountain of youth item is the french fry machine, a money pit into which dozens of companies have dumped tens of millions of dollars. Erstwhile president of Caltech Roy Allen, involved with one such effort, described the problem of condiment delivery: “It was easy for salt and vinegar, but ketchup was a real bastard.” Heinz briefly tested “Heinz: The King-Hell Bastard of Condiments” as a slogan, but abandoned it after poor focus-group showings (note: not really).
The actual technology of fry machines was inevitably byzantine and unnervingly food-sciencey. The “Spud Stop” made fries by extruding a mix of potato powder and water; another version used “pellets of pulverized potato that expanded on contact with water,” techniques that might not be out of place at your average molecular gastronomy restaurant. More to the point, an unmonitored cauldron of hot oil presents certain safety hurdles. One vendor said “It disturbs you when they sell a machine with a built-in fire extinguisher.” It does. It does disturb me.
The Modern Period
In bullet point format, the second half of the 20th century in vending:
• The ease of machine operation becomes a magnet for get-rich-quick acolytes, and those who wish to profit off them. One former executive called the vending business “more or less a piker affair,” and a magazine correspondent went undercover posing as a novice machine operator, whence he was bamboozled by the candy sharks who sold him overpriced machines with inflated profit estimates. He wrote an expose on the entire affair called The Trouble With Gumballs (note: I’m totally serious. That’s real).
• Cigarettes banned; cola moves in. School districts sign exclusive vending contracts for astronomical sums (a 30,000 student district in Colorado makes nearly $1 million a year from Coke). “Debate” about whether schools should have junk food vending machines, and when they should be available, has been ongoing since 1956. Guess who wins?
• Industry lobbies government to ensure the design of the Susan B. Anthony and Sacagawea dollars play well with existing machines. The Susan B. Anthony dollar fails, according to some, because it too nearly resembles a quarter. (Similar note: when inflation pinched profits, Coke lobbied Eisenhower to mint a 7.5 cent piece, so they wouldn’t need to double prices)
• Japan rockets past the US for vending supremacy. Has twice as many machines per capita as the States, and 10x as many as Europe. Sells crabs and whiskey, even has 24-hour automated grocery stores.
• CPSC finds that ~2 deaths per year result from falling vending machines; in 1995 anti-tip warning labels are added to soda machines.
• In the mid-1980s, city officials in Little Rock, AR complain of a “big boom” in people taking disused vending machines and setting them up on their porch or chaining them to a tree in their front yard. This practice is said to violate “zoning ordinances” but I think you could secure $22 million in VC funding tomorrow with a “like AirBnb, but for vending machines” pitch.
In conclusion, why do vending machines carry such cultural cachet? Perhaps it is because they serve the dual purpose of automating away low-wage jobs while simultaneously increasing the inescapable social alienation of the consumer. Indeed, it is the very alienation engendered by this act of de-socialized consumption that makes consumers, paradoxically, more eager to engage in the neurobiologically rewarding act of consumption itself. Induced by high fructose corn syrup and prepared tuna sandwiches, the transient sensory gratification of consumption—the mere electrical flickers of the brain’s pleasure center—become a temporary anesthetic, a fleeting buttress against the ever-encroaching isolation and detachment of modern consumerism. Then again, I can beam my personal favorite drink mix to a Coke Freestyle machine from my phone, which is crucial to my self-identity as an iconoclast, so nevermind.
Some hilarious vending machine names: Val-A-Vac (vacuum); Hy-G-Toi (toiletries); Speedy Weeny (hot dogs); Shipman (stamps); Vendrink (drinks); Nik-O-Loc (toilet stall locks); Vend-A-Bait (live bait); Lunch-O-Mat; Elmer (short for “electrical merchant”); Vendolator (soda); Uneed-A-Pak (cigarettes); Hot-O-Mat (hot chocolate).
A brief list of odd vending machine ideas:
- candy and opera glass dispensers were once attached to the back of theater seats
- fresh-made pancakes (in the 1920s!); the machine applied the syrup
- time-locked typewriters and vacuum cleaners
- 24-hour life insurance sold pre-flight in the airport
- live bait
- lobsters (grabbed with a claw like those stuffed animal machines)
- a personal favorite: mashed potatoes and gravy
- a candy bar machine that played a Henny Youngman joke when a purchase was made
Primary reference for most of this is Vending Machines: An American Social History, by Kerry Segrave. Also, issues of the coin machine magazine Automatic Age from 1925-1945 are available online at the arcade museum and it is a sheer delight to browse. It includes gems of advice like: “A peanut as you undoubtedly know, supplies heat to the system…so you can readily see that you need no great amount in the hot weather. … In the fall and winter the lowly peanut comes into its own. Have a little patience, you beginners who are wondering what this peanut business is all about.”