Before there was Jesus, there was vending machine.
That's right, vending machine. It might seem like a modern idea, but the
first vending machine actually dates back to approximately 200 B.C.
It was around that time that Hero of Alexandria, a Greek mathematician
and prolific inventor, wrote about the earliest known vending machine in
his book about pneumatics, the science about the mechanical properties
of gases. The machine was designed to distribute holy water for the
price of a silver coin.
According to Hero, when a coin was dropped through the slot on top of
the vessel, it would hit a lever that unplugged a hole to let the water
flow out the side. When the coin fell off the lever, the hole would
close again and the water would stop flowing.
Whether Hero actually invented the machine or was simply writing about
devices common to the period isn't clear. But either way, his
description does set a very old precedent for soda machine.
After the holy water dispenser, the odd machine popped up here and there
- in 1076 AD, for instance, the Chinese invented a coin-operated machine
that sold pencils.
But like some other great inventions, the vending machine would languish
in obscurity for centuries.
Charles Hanna, a vending machine historian and author of the book The
Vending Industry - History, Trends, Secrets, Opportunities & Scams, said
vending machines didn't really start gaining in popularity around the
world until the late 1800s.
About that time, the Japanese post office started using coin-operated
machines to sell stamps while the British used them for dispensing post
cards and cigars.
In 1887, Stollwerck AG of Cologne set up the first vending machines in
Germany to sell chocolates. In the next 10 years, the company would
install thousands of vending machines.
The machines caught on in the United States, when Thomas Adams Gum Co.
started using vending machines to sell its products in 1888. The company
placed Tutti-Frutti gum machines in a New York train station, and
travelers spread the word about the mechanized wonder.
Hanna, of Lenexa, Ka., said that by 1890, a silver dollar in the right
machine could buy you a marriage certificate or divorce decree,
depending on your mood. Now that's convenience!
The first entirely automated restaurant
called the Automat opened 12 years later in Philadelphia. The
waiter-less restaurant, owned by Horn and Hardart Baking Co., featured
rows and rows of food in push-button machines. But those machines didn't
make the food, they just dispensed it.
Today's vending machines can cook and sell
everything from french fries to pizza. The big
problem now is keeping the machine stocked and
in working order with minimal effort.
In 1993, Wired magazine featured a student at
Carnegie Mellon University who was sick of
walking all the way to the vending machine only
to find it out of his favourite soda. So he
rigged machine to enable him to e-mail it when
he was thirsty and find out what was in stock.
CStar Technologies Inc. of Toronto is taking
that idea a step further using wireless
technology to modernize the machines and make
them easier to manage.
"In the vending industry, people are really
servicing the machine in a primitive way," said
Stella Yoon, president of cStar.
Yoon said one truck driver might have to service
more than 150 machines. Each time, he has to
park his truck, get out and open up the machine
to check for problems, see what needs refilling
and possibly change the price.
But all that can now be done remotely, using
wireless technologies. A transmitter on a
vending machine relays information to a receiver
and handheld computer in the driver's truck.
As the driver completes his route, information
from each machine is uploaded to the receiver,
notifying him about everything from the
temperature inside the machine to how many cans
of soda are left. That way, the driver only has
to get out of his truck if the ending machine
actually needs servicing.
And at the end of the day, all that information
can be quickly uploaded to a central computer at
the head office, saving a lot of time that other
wise would be spent on paperwork.
"It gives the truck driver a great sense of
responsibility, like an IT specialists," Yoon
said. "He knows what to take and where."
A couple of hundred vending machines in Canada
are already equipped with such devices.
Rachel Ross can be reached by e-mail at
Vintage and modern vending machines dispense,
among many items from left below: bread (1987),
fresh air (1960), suntan oil (1989), french
fries (1987) and cigarettes (2002).