The History of Vending Machines

Did You Know That Holy Water Was Once Vended?

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 comes from the Greek mathematician Hero of Alexandria, who invented a device that dispensed holy water inside Egyptian temples. 

Other early examples include small machines made of brass that dispensed tobacco, were found in some taverns in England around 1615. In 1822, an English publisher and bookshop owner named Richard Carlile built a newspaper dispensing machine that allowed patrons to purchase banned works. And it was in 1867 that the first fully automatic vending machine, which dispensed stamps, appeared. 

Coin-Operated Vending Machines

During the early 1880s, the first commercial coin-operated vending machines were introduced in London, England. Invented in 1883 by Percival Everitt, the machines were found at railway stations and post offices, as they were a convenient way to purchase envelopes, postcards, and notepaper. And in 1887, the first vending machine servicer, the Sweetmeat Automatic Delivery Company, was founded. 

In 1888, the Thomas Adams Gum Company introduced the very first vending machines to the United States. The machines were installed on the elevated subway platforms in New York City and sold Tutti-Fruiti gum. In 1897, the Pulver Manufacturing Company added animated figures to its gum machines as an added attraction. The round, candy-coated gumball, and gumball vending machines were introduced in 1907.

Coin-Operated Restaurants

Soon, vending machines were available that offered almost everything, including cigars, postcards, and stamps. In Philadelphia, a completely coin-operated automat restaurant called Horn & Hardart was opened in 1902 and stayed opened until 1962. Such fast-food restaurants, called automats, only took nickels and were popular among struggling songwriters and actors, as well as celebrities of that era. 

Beverage Vending Machines

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

Cigarettes in Vending Machines

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

Specialty Vending 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 vending machine industry took a big jump around 2006 when credit card scanners started to become common on vending machines. Within ten years, almost every new vending machine was equipped to accept credit cards. This opened the door to the sale of many high-priced items through vending machines. Here are just some of the specialty products that have been offered via vending machine: 

  • Fishing bait
  • On-line internet time
  • Lottery tickets
  • Books
  • Electronics, including I-pads, 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 that offered Ferrari and Lamborghini cars. Buyers clearly need hefty limits on their credit cards. 

Japan, Land of the Vending Machines

Japan has gained a reputation for having some of the most innovative use of vending machines, offering machines that offer products including fresh fruits and vegetables, sake, hot foods, batteries, flowers, clothing and, of course, sushi. In fact, Japan has the highest per capita rate of vending machines in the world. 

The Future of Vending Machines

A coming trend is the advent of smart vending machines that offer things like cashless payment; face, eye, or fingerprint recognition, and social media connectivity. It is likely that the vending machines of the future will recognize your identity and tailor their offerings to your interests and tastes. A beverage vending machine, for example, may well recognize what you have purchased at other vending machines all around the world 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'd like.