Vending Machines

Doling out the goodies for thousands of years

By James Kelsey

What would life be like without vending machines — one of life’s more underrated staples? For change or a few dollars you can get a bag of Cheetos, a Snickers bar or a can of Coca Cola almost anywhere: in a school, hospital, office, university, convention center, store or even on the street. In fact, it’s safe to say that most of us have walked past one of these ingenious concepts in the last day or two.

 Diagram of Hero’s ancient holy water dispenser

Diagram of Hero’s ancient holy water dispenser

Origins of vending

Hero of Alexandria, an ancient Greek mathematician and engineer, made the first known vending machine in 215 BCE. His machine dispensed holy water in return for a coin. The coin’s weight moved a lever, lifting a stopper that allowed the water to flow. When the coin slid off the lever, the stopper fell back into place. According to Greek and Roman Studies Professor John Humphrey, the idea originated when Hero thought people were taking more holy water than they were paying for. Hero built the first vending machine more than two centuries before the origin of Christianity.

Through the ages

The next noted vending machines were created in China in 1076, dispensing pencils for coins. Later, in the 1700s, tobacco dispensers were introduced in English Taverns, followed by machines that offered postcards and stamps in the 1880s. About the same time, Richard Carlisle, an English publisher, invented a machine that dispensed books.

 The Thomas Adams Gum Company’s Tutti-Frutti dispenser

The Thomas Adams Gum Company’s Tutti-Frutti dispenser

An all-time favorite

Not to be outdone by the English, the Thomas Adams Gum Company created a machine in 1888 that dispensed Tutti-Frutti gum in New York train platforms. Almost a decade later, the Pulver Manufacturing Company added animated mechanical figures in their machines. These more modern machines, filled with round, coated gumballs in a spherical container, were first created in 1907. The complexity of these contraptions evolved with rails for the gumball to ride on, lights, pulleys and levers, wowing adults and children alike.


20th century versions

In the early 1920s, the first automatic vending machines began dispensing beverages into cups, and in 1926, American inventor William Rowe unveiled the cigarette vending machine. Twenty years later, American George Thiemeyer Hemmeter introduced the newspaper vending machine to replace the honor racks his business, Serven Vendor Company, had been making to hold newspapers purchased on the honor system. By 1987, more than one million of the coin-operated newspaper vending machines had been distributed in the United States. Although still in existence, these machines began to lose popularity with the transition to online news sources.

Modern wonders

Vending machines of the 21st century have gotten increasingly innovative. Many of today’s vending machines allow you to pay by credit card or smartphone app for such things as fresh pizza, customized burritos or cupcakes. And, thanks to science and 3D printing, Virginia Tech has created the DreamVendor, a “vending machine with infinite inventory” designed to enable students to fabricate prototypes for their academic or personal design projects. This machine could theoretically print any item or toy imaginable, which just might bring out the creativity in all of us.

 A state-of-the-art automatic espresso machine

A state-of-the-art automatic espresso machine