While they might not strike you as particularly historic, vending machines have actually been around for about two thousand years.
The first ever vending machine was invented by the 1st-century Greek mathematician and engineer Hero of Alexandria. It used a series of valves, pulleys and weights to dispense holy water to revellers in Egyptian temples who put a coin into the machine. On the other side of the world, similar innovations popped up in China as well when in 1076 Chinese inventors developed a coin-operated machine that could dispense pencils.
While in the 1700s there were coin-activated Tobacco boxes in England, it wasn’t until after the Industrial Revolution however that we started to see modern vending machines as we know them today. The first ones sold postcards in London in the 1880s, followed shortly after by publisher Richard Carlisle’s vending machine that could dispense books.
Across the pond vending machines also began appearing around the same time in the United States. The first ones were made by the Thomas Adams Gum Company in 1888, and offered chewing gum to waiting passengers on the subway platforms in New York City.
A vending machine for everything
By the late 1920s and 1930s new technologies and increased demand helped make vending machines much more ubiquitous on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. William Rowe kicked off a trend towards higher priced merchandise in 1926 with his cigarette vending machine; soon, people were able to buy soft drinks and candy whenever they wished with just a few coins.
By the mid 1940s automated coffee vendors were also being introduced, along with refrigerated sandwich vendors in the early 1950s – these machines were particularly popular in busy cities, where office work was beginning to take hold; people relied on the machines for affordable lunches and snacks when they didn’t have access to a kitchen. Throughout London, many of the city’s vending machines were found at train and Underground stations. There were fruit vending machines at Paddington Station in 1928 and even a hot tea station at Paddington in 1951.
Practically anything that could be vended was – the first beverage vendor appeared in Paris in 1890 and offered beer, wine and liquor. In 1962 a greengrocer in Chelsea became the first in Britain to introduce a vending machine that offered pre-packed potatoes. In Surrey, a farmer named Mr R Wells spent years trying to obtain planning permission for his egg vending machine. By 1963 locals could use the machine to purchase eggs at 5s a dozen.
It wasn’t just food that was popular at this time; people purchased flowers, nylons, clothing, cigarettes, insurance, postage stamps, live bait, cameras, comic books and even lottery tickets from vending machines. In 1966, an innovation by John Greenwick made it possible for vending machines to start accepting paper bills, paving the way for the modern machines we still use today.
Buying your own piece of vending machine history
People have been buying everything from fresh cupcakes and hot pizzas, chocolate bars and iPads from vending machines ever since, and while the modern machines may be more technologically advanced, nothing beats the cool nostalgia of the retro versions of the 50s.
The iconic red and white Coca Cola vending machine is probably the most recognisable of its kind out there and still one of the most sought-after. Shaped like an old ice box and bearing a small window to peer in at the chilled bottles inside, for just 10-cents people could enjoy a bottle of refreshing Coca Cola, a drink that is now a much-loved American icon.