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The 2,000-Year-Old History of Vending Machines

Vending machine filled with a variety of snacks and candy
@snackzonevending/Instagram

There’s little more frightening than watching a purchased bag of Sunchips get caught in a vending machine, and no greater joy than when three bags of Sunchips fall for the price of one.

We’ve all been there.

While vending machines have made great technological strides, they essentially still operate with the same basic contraption. The earliest known version offered the most extraordinary of snacks: water—well, holy water, to be exact. As Kerry Segrave, author of Vending Machines: A Social History, found, the first vending machine was invented by Heron of Alexandria in first-century Roman Egypt because worshipers were taking more than their fair share of holy water at temple. The machine didn’t have a Coke logo on it, but it did accept coins, and when deposited they hit a pan and pushed against a lever that let the blessed stuff flow out. Once the coin fell off, however, the valve shut and you’d have to move along. It was innovative and clunky at the same time, paving the way for much-needed improvements.

Subsequent advances came in fits and starts: In 1822, English bookseller Richard Carlile created a newspaper vending machine that sold banned works like Thomas Paine’s The Age of Reason (for which he was arrested). In 1883, Percival Everitt built a postcard version widely featured in train stations around London. America finally joined the party in 1888 when Adams Gum Company vended Tutti-Frutti gum. The planet’s newest, boxiest salesperson was getting popular.

As vending machines began to proliferate over the next half century—selling everything from candy to stamps to bulk peanuts to hot and cold beverages—an unforeseen issue plagued manufacturers. Long used to buying things from other human beings, the public found it difficult taking these rectangular clerks seriously, and often tried to cheat them.

“Even at that early a point in vending machine history, the public had come to see the silent salesman as fair game to beat,” writes Segrave. The coin slots couldn’t always distinguish between real coins and anything that was remotely shaped and weighted like a coin, and so chislers would insert metal, wood, and even ice slugs to trick the machines and abscond with the goods. But the coin-detecting technology soon improved, and laws followed suit banning the manufacture and use of such impostors.

After conquering many vending machine barriers—including offering multiple items, dollar bill slots, and the hardest of challenges: dispensing hot coffee—we reached the platonic ideal of the modern vending machine in the ’80s and ’90s. It’s the one you picture in your head when hearing the words, the one down the dark hall in countless hotels that people that people look for before they find the fire exits.

Today vending machines comprise a $30 billion industry and are no longer simply mini–general stores dropping 100 Grand bars and rolls of Life Savers. In China, pressing a vending machine button can procure a live crab; in Singapore, a luxury car; and throughout the U.S., Art-o-mats will get you an original work of art (as long as it fits in a vending machine). Manufacturers seem intent on offering everything you can get everywhere else; the dominant trend finds vending machines no longer content to just give you food—they want to cook for you, too.

Get some fries with your fries from Beyondte Electronics, a Chinese company that builds machines which flash-fry fries in hot oil at the touch of a button (sounds safe), and then drops them off with the dipping sauce of your choice. If you prefer pizza and don’t have the patience for a 30-minute wait, Let’s Pizza will automatically shape the dough onto a plate, spread the sauce with a spinny thing, deposit cheese and toppings, and then bake it in an infrared oven. Is it good? Who cares if it’s good? It comes from a machine and people seem to be forgiving when the wait is 90 seconds.

“Humans have always had a strong preference for immediate versus delayed gratification. In fact, this is probably true for all vertebrates,” says professor Bradley M. Appelhans of the Rush University Medical Center, who invented a device that makes you wait a whopping 25 seconds for junk food like chips and candy in vending machines, but dispenses healthier items instantly. “However, only recently have humans had the technology and resources to deliver immediate gratification so readily.”

His device ultimately created a 5 percent proportional change in healthy purchases, rooted in the familiar irritation that is waiting. “Having to wait for something makes it less desirable at the point of decision. Knowing this in advance can affect one’s choice,” Appelhans says. “Additionally … the ability to change your mind during the delivery delay provides an additional opportunity to reflect on what you’re about to eat.” Reflecting on what you’re about to eat is anathema to much of the food scene, let alone vending machines.

No matter the novelty, it can never escape the shadow of the vending machine from which it was purchased, so the crab becomes a vending machine crab, the car a vending machine car, and the artwork a piece of vending machine art. It creates an amusing context in which people are either embarrassed to say where they bought the item, or really excited to let you know.

While the pandemic has slowed people’s ability to impulse buy, and we’re inadvertently finding more time to appreciate slow cooking, the culture of instant gratification—for good and ill—will persist through anything nature throws at us. Buying a quick treat from a robot box should always have a nostalgic place in the culinary world, somewhere in the corner of a hallway.

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