The History of Vending Machines
Automated dispensers of food, beverages and other goods stretch back to ancient Egypt
One of the most enduring tools of convenience has been the vending machine. Easily dispensing food, beverages and a cornucopia of other goods to customers on the go, they are a staple around the world. It should go without saying that this icon of popular culture has a long and varied history to get to where it stands today as an integral part of every-day life.
The automated machines that dispense a specific product or range of products for a price is not some recent invention of modernity. The first known vending machine was developed by Hero of Alexandria, a Greek engineer and mathematician in Roman-dominated Egypt around the first-century A.D. He built a rudimentary device that provided a swallow of holy water in exchange for a coin. When a coin was deposited, it landed on a pan connected to a lever, which in turn briefly opened a valve to permit water flow. It was so amazingly revolutionary that historians have chuckled that it must have reinforced the miraculous reputation of the liquid to those who couldn’t believe how such an ingenious dispenser could work.
There were machines not entirely dislike the early Egyptian version in English taverns that popped up around 1615. Made of brass and portable, they served up tobacco, that had arrived from the “New World” in North America.
The first completely automated vending machine was built by Briton Simon Denham in 1867, who used his invention to sell stamps. It wasn’t long after, in the 1880s, that the first modern coin-operated machines popped up in London,. Typically installed at rail stations and post offices, they sold items like stationary, postcards and envelopes to travelers.
England was where modern vending machines truly took off. The Sweetmeat Automatic Delivery Company was the first enterprise to specifically work with installing and maintaining a fleet of vending machines. Unsurprisingly, they caught on in America not long afterwards, with Thomas Adams Gum Company building the first version in the United States in order to sell their Tutti-Fruiti chewing gum on subway platforms.