History of Vending Machines


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"The vending machine is the perfect metaphor for modern life. You put in your money, you expect something good, and sometimes you get it, but most of the time you get screwed."

—Chuck Palahniuk

The vending machine stands as a testament to our timeless desire for instant gratification and mechanical ingenuity.

From the ancient streets of Alexandria, where Hero's coin-operated contraption dispensed holy water, to today's global metropolises where machines vend items as diverse as gold bars and live crabs, the history of vending machines is rich with innovation and controversy.

As we delve into this captivating journey, we'll explore not just the evolution of the machine itself, but the broader societal shifts and debates they both reflected and instigated.


portrait of Hero of Alexandria, the inventor of the vending machine
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In the flourishing epoch of ancient Greece, during a period marked by unprecedented advancements in engineering and science, the polymath Hero of Alexandria emerged as one of its most distinguished innovators.

His creation, the world's earliest documented vending machine, was not intended for commercial pursuits or frivolous entertainment, but for the spiritual realm.

Positioned within temples, this pioneering device met the devout need for an unbiased distribution of holy water, ensuring a consistent offering for every coin deposited.

The mechanics behind Hero's invention were both simple and ingenious.

As devotees placed a coin into the slot, its weight would pull down a lever, releasing a predetermined quantity of holy water.

Once the coin dropped off the lever, the mechanism would reset, ready for the next spiritual petitioner.

This seemingly modest device was emblematic of a broader Hellenistic enthusiasm for automata and mechanical curiosities.

Hero's holy water dispenser, while specific in its religious application, paved the way for subsequent generations to imagine machines that could deliver goods without human intervention.


vending machine of books
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In the Victorian age, a period rife with invention and innovation, England witnessed the birth of an intriguing marriage between literature and machinery.

Percival Everitt, an entrepreneur with a keen eye for the intersection of convenience and commerce, patented a device in 1883 that would bring the joy of reading to the masses with unprecedented ease.

This was not any ordinary machine, but a vending mechanism specifically designed to dispense books.

Everitt's invention responded to the era's voracious appetite for literature, fueled in part by the rise in literacy rates and the flourishing print industry.

Installed primarily at railway stations and similar transit points, these vending machines catered to travelers seeking solace in a good read during their journeys.

Each machine held a selection of titles, allowing the purchaser a choice of literary adventures for a modest sum.

The broader implication of Everitt’s book-dispensing mechanism was profound.

It represented not just a new way to purchase literature, but also democratized access to knowledge and entertainment.

Amidst the cacophony of steam engines and the quiet rustling of turning pages, these vending machines stood as silent sentinels of progress, underscoring the nation's evolving relationship with both technology and the written word.

As the century waned, Everitt’s invention would be but one of the myriad stepping stones leading to our modern world of automated convenience and ubiquitous literature.


Royal vending machine
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In the waning years of the 19th century, the urban landscapes of the UK began to see a subtle, yet transformative change.

The burgeoning Industrial Revolution and its resultant urban migration intensified the need for quick, efficient communication tools.

Enter the vending machine, a marvel of Victorian innovation, which by the late 1880s had become a familiar sight, particularly in transportation hubs.

These early commercial contraptions offered travelers and city-dwellers alike immediate access to postcards, envelopes, and notepaper.

These machines, while seemingly prosaic by today's standards, were a testament to the zeitgeist of an era that celebrated both technological advancements and the newfound ubiquity of personal correspondence.

The popularity of such vending mechanisms can be attributed not only to their convenience but also to the burgeoning tourism industry, where travelers sought postcards as keepsakes or to share their experiences with distant loved ones.

Moreover, the frenetic pace of city life meant that businessmen and the emerging middle class found the instant availability of notepaper and envelopes invaluable.


vending machine of cigars
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As the 20th century dawned, the world witnessed dramatic transformations in technology, society, and culture. Among these shifts was the proliferation of vending machines, evolving from simple dispensers of sweets and snacks to sophisticated apparatuses catering to a wide array of consumer demands.

One notable addition to this mechanical menagerie was the cigarette vending machine, a symbol of modern convenience mirroring the era's escalating affair with tobacco.

Initially, these machines were hailed as the epitome of progress and modernity, allowing adults swift access to their preferred brands without the need for store transactions.

Strategically placed in bars, hotels, and railway stations, they epitomized the fast-paced, on-the-go ethos of the 20th century.

However, as decades progressed, societal understanding of tobacco's health implications deepened, leading to growing anxieties around these ever-present machines.

By the latter half of the century, concerns about underage smoking began to permeate public discourse. Vending machines, with their lack of age-verification mechanisms, became prime targets for criticism.

The very convenience they offered was now under scrutiny, as they inadvertently provided minors easy, unsupervised access to cigarettes.

As a result, many jurisdictions initiated regulations or outright bans on cigarette vending machines, marking a stark shift from their once-celebrated status.


Coca-Cola vending machines
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As the 20th century unfurled, technological advancements permeated various facets of daily life, including the hallowed halls of educational institutions.

One such manifestation was the introduction of soda vending machines within schools. Brands like Coca-Cola and PepsiCo, seeking to expand their youthful consumer base, found fertile ground in school corridors and cafeterias.

These machines, brimming with carbonated beverages, soon became a staple, offering students a quick, refreshing respite between classes.

However, by the latter half of the century, a cloud of contention began to overshadow this seemingly benign convenience.

The latter decades of the 1900s, especially the 1980s and 1990s, witnessed rising concerns about child health, particularly in Western nations like the United States.

As research began to draw links between sugary drinks, obesity, and related health complications, soda vending machines in schools were thrust into the spotlight of public discourse.

Health advocates argued that these machines were contributing to unhealthy dietary habits, while brands defended their products as part of a broader landscape of choice.

A notable case emerged in the early 2000s when the Los Angeles Unified School District, one of the largest in the U.S., banned soda sales in its schools, citing concerns over student health.

Such decisions were echoed in various jurisdictions worldwide, with schools in the UK, Canada, and Australia implementing similar restrictions or outright bans.


Jihanki vending machine
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Amid the rich tapestry of Japan's history, the post-war era heralded profound socio-economic and cultural shifts.

As urbanization accelerated and consumer culture burgeoned, Japan became home to the world's most diverse array of vending machines, known locally as "jihanki." These machines catered to virtually every need, from drinks to electronics.

However, in the latter part of the 20th century, amidst this vast assortment, certain vending machines emerged that would stir national and international controversy: those purporting to sell used schoolgirl underwear.

The presence of these machines, primarily in the urban nightscapes of Tokyo and Osaka, tapped into certain niche fetishistic subcultures.

However, as their existence became more widely known, they provoked significant unease.

Critics saw them as an unsettling embodiment of the sexualization of young girls, while others voiced concerns over potential infringements on privacy and consent.

By the 1990s, the issue had gained considerable attention both domestically and abroad.

Japanese media outlets reported on them, often critically, leading to heightened public awareness and subsequent outcry.

The national government, responding to this growing concern, introduced stricter regulations in 1993, particularly targeting the sale and purchase of used underwear and making it more challenging for such vending machines to operate within legal confines.


Car vending machine
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In the sprawling historical narrative of American innovation, the 21st century heralded new intersections of technology, convenience, and consumerism.

The United States, with its long standing love affair with the automobile, witnessed yet another evolution in its automotive culture.

Amidst this milieu emerged an unexpected, almost surreal, development: vending machines designed to dispense cars. Carvana, an e-commerce platform for used cars, took the concept of the vending machine—a symbol of instant gratification—and married it with the grandiosity of car buying.

These multi-story, glass-encased structures, appearing first in cities like Nashville and Houston, were not just functional but also theatrical.

Customers could watch, often in awe, as their chosen vehicle was mechanically retrieved and presented to them, echoing the sensation of a futuristic sci-fi tableau.

The process bypassed traditional dealerships and salespeople, offering a novel, streamlined car-buying experience.

The Carvana vending machines were emblematic of broader shifts in American consumer behavior.

As online shopping gained ground, even high-ticket items like cars were no longer immune to the allure of digital convenience.

However, these structures also sparked conversations about the future of the automobile industry, sustainability, and the cultural implications of such mechanized transactions.