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Vending Machines – A blast from the past

by Gokul Anand M

Introduction

Vending machines have provided convenient access to products and services for centuries. They have found applications in everything between unmanned retail and harm reduction programs. Some sell potato wafers and colas, while others sell gold bars. Yes, you read that right! [1] But this is not how the story of vending machines began. Like many other modern cultural phenomena, vending machines have their origins in the golden years of Greece.

Vending Machines – A blast from the past

Early Examples of Unmanned Vending

As surprising as it is, unmanned vending has its origins in spirituality. A quick search on the internet will tell anybody that no version of “the history of vending machines” can be written without mentioning Hero Ctesibius from Alexandria in the 1st Century BC. His contraption that rationed holy water in exchange for a coin is the first example of a vending machine.

There are few examples of unmanned dispensing after this for a very long time. The subsequent documented evidence came in a steampunk contraption made of brass and wood in the 16th Century. These machines were mainly used for selling tobacco in the taverns of the Elizabethan Era. Like the modern newspaper stands, they were honor boxes that relied on the customer’s values. The insertion of a coin opened the door that provided access to the product. The customer then picked the amount they paid for.

Vending in the Industrial Age

The industrial age spawned the next wave of advancements in vending machines. This was driven by Richard Carlile, a bookseller. Carlile used vending machines to sell books that were considered blasphemous, like “The Age of Reason: Being an Investigation of True and Fabulous Theology” by Thomas Paine. Vending machines allowed Carlile to escape the wrath of the religious police while pushing literature that could be considered radical in its times. Carlile eventually served a term in prison. Nevertheless, he became a critical milestone in the history of vending machines.

Then came along Simeon Denham. His invention was the vending machine that sold postal stamps at railway stations. This must-have frequently allowed travelers to write to their homes or employers from their point of transit or departure. They were not known for their reliability as much as for their novelty. Percival Everitt improved upon the machine by including several features to make the device more reliable. The heavy cast-iron machines were challenging to tamper with. The scales were finely calibrated to differentiate currency and decoy slugs. The coin slots turned shut when the machine ran out of stock. In many ways, this machine became the first genuinely functional automated vending machine that served its complete intended purpose.

Another of Everitt’s inventions was the coin-operated weight scale. This machine caught the fancy of an American inventor Thomas Adam. Adam bought the American rights to the coin-operated scale to use in his machine that sold Tutti Frutti flavored chewing gum. The invention of the sugar-coated gumballs made them an ideal commodity for vending machines. They could be placed in open spaces for long periods.

The dawn of the 20th Century

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