The History of Vending Machines

The first recorded machine provided holy water in temples

Iconic vintage Coca Cola vending machines.

 Ben Franske/Wikimedia Commons

Vending or automatic retailing, as the process of selling merchandise via automated machine is increasingly known, has a long history. The first recorded example of the vending machine came from Greek mathematician Hero of Alexandria, who invented a device that dispensed holy water inside Egyptian temples. 

Other early examples included small brass machines that dispensed tobacco, found in taverns in England around 1615. In 1822, English publisher and bookshop owner Richard Carlile built a newspaper dispensing machine that allowed patrons to purchase banned works. The first fully automatic vending machine, which dispensed stamps, appeared in 1867.

Coin-Operated Machines

During the early 1880s, the first commercial coin-operated vending machines were introduced in London, England. The machines were commonly found at railway stations and post offices because they were convenient for purchasing envelopes, postcards, and notepaper. In 1887, the first vending machine servicer, the Sweetmeat Automatic Delivery Co., was founded. 

The next year, the Thomas Adams Gum Co. introduced the first vending machines to the United States. They were installed on the elevated subway platforms in New York, New York, and sold Tutti-Fruiti gum. In 1897, the Pulver Manufacturing Co. added illustrated figures to its gum machines as an extra attraction. The round, candy-coated gumball and gumball vending machines were introduced in 1907.

Coin-Operated Restaurants

Soon, vending machines were offering almost everything, including cigars and stamps. In Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, a completely coin-operated restaurant called Horn & Hardart opened in 1902 and lasted until 1962.

Such fast-food restaurants, called automats, originally took only nickels and were popular among struggling songwriters and actors as well as celebrities of the era.

Beverages and Cigarettes

Machines dispensing drinks go as far back as 1890. The first beverage vending machine was in Paris, France, and allowed people to buy beer, wine, and liquor. In the early 1920s, vending machines started dispensing sodas into cups. Today, beverages are among the most popular items sold through vending machines.

In 1926, American inventor William Rowe invented the cigarette vending machine. Over time, however, they became less common in the United States due to concerns over underage buyers. In other countries, vendors required that some sort of age verification, such as a driver's license, bank card, or ID, be inserted before a purchase could be made. Cigarette dispensing machines are still common in Germany, Austria, Italy, the Czech Republic, and Japan. 

Specialty Machines

Food, beverages, and cigarettes are the most common items sold in vending machines, but the list of specialty items sold by this form of automation is almost endless, as a quick survey of any airport or bus terminal will tell you. The industry took a big jump around 2006 when credit card scanners became common on vending machines. Within 10 years, almost every new machine was equipped to accept credit cards, opening the door to the sale of many high-priced items.

Specialty products that have been offered via vending machine include:

  • Fish bait
  • Online internet time
  • Lottery tickets
  • Books
  • Electronics, including iPads, cell phones, digital cameras, and computers 
  • Hot foods, such as french fries and pizza
  • Life insurance
  • Condoms and other contraceptives
  • Over-the-counter drugs
  • Marijuana
  • Automobiles

Yes, you read that last item correctly: In late 2016, Autobahn Motors in Singapore opened a luxury car vending machine offering Ferraris and Lamborghinis. Buyers clearly needed hefty limits on their credit cards.

The Land of Vending Machines

Japan has a reputation for having some of the most innovative uses of automated vending, providing machines that offer fresh fruits and vegetables, sake, hot foods, batteries, flowers, clothing and, of course, sushi. Japan has the highest per capita rate of vending machines in the world. 

The Future

The latest trend is smart vending machines, which offer services such as cashless payments; face, eye, or fingerprint recognition; and social media connectivity. It is likely that vending machines of the future will recognize you and tailor their offerings to your interests and tastes. A beverage vending machine, for example, might recognize what you have purchased at other machines and ask you if you want your usual "skim latte with a double shot of vanilla." 

Market research projects that by 2020, 20% of all vending machines will be smart machines, with at least 3.6 million units knowing who you are and what you like.