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A Brief History of Vending Machines

It’s unlikely that you’ve ever thought about it, but vending machines have a rich, varied, and fascinating history. As a concept, they predate a lot of the technology we take for granted today.

Indeed, the first ever known reference to a vending machine is in the writings of Hero of Alexandria, 10 – 70AD, a Greek mathematician and engineer who is generally considered to be one of antiquity’s greatest minds. Heron was responsible for many astounding innovations, including the syringe, the first recorded steam engine, the first ever wind-powered machine, and the first ever vending machine.

Hero’s vending machine was used in a temple, dispensing holy water in exchange for a coin. Worshippers would deposit a coin, which would fall onto a pan. The pan was attached to a lever, which would open a valve to allow for some water to flow. The machine was cleverly designed so as to only dispense a set amount of water: the pan would continue to tilt until the coin would fall, causing a counterweight to snap a lever up and close the valve.

Like many of Hero’s ideas, his vending machine concept would not enjoy widespread use for thousands of years. The next recorded vending machine is found in 17th century England, were coin operated tobacco dispensing machines were found in taverns from as early as 1615. However, the first fully automatic vending machine would not appear until 1867. It was invented by Simeon Denham, and it dispensed stamps.

The very first modern coin operated vending machines, similar to the ones we’re familiar with today, were introduced in London in the early 1880s. They were initially used to dispense postcards, envelopes, and notepaper at railways stations and post offices. In 1887 The Sweetmeat Automatic Delivery Company was founded, the first company to concern themselves entirely with the stocking, installation, and maintenance of vending machines.

The first vending machine to sell food and snacks appeared in 1888, dispensing chewing gum to New York City train commuters. Some of these devices involved small mechanical figures, who would move around whenever anyone bought gum. It can therefore be said that the roots of pinball, slot machines, and even video games, can be traced back to vending machines.

Throughout the 20th century and the early part of the 21st century, vending machines would continue to evolve and spread. Today, they are so prevalent that in countries such as Japan, there is one vending machine per 23 people. Meanwhile, the Coca-Cola Company alone has over 10 million vending machines in operation around the world.

 

And it’s all thanks to a Hero with a vision.