The History of Vending Machines Goes Back to the 1st Century

(Image: Courtesy Tedium)

Vending machines are one of the few things keeping us away from the dream of a cashless society. The devices, which offer up an array of items for a little bit of pocket change, are silent but prevalent. They represent some of our most technologically advanced furniture, and they'll probably always be there for us in our time of need.

Turns out, vending machines also have a fascinating history. The first one was actually created to prevent holy water theft back in the 1st century.

That machine came about thanks to the handiwork of Heron of Alexandria. Now, Heron invented plenty of things that helped set the stage for our modern society. Steam engine? He was all over it. A wind-powered machine? That was him. The syringe? He got there first.

But many of these things pale in comparison to the machine he created that efficiently ensured that people weren't taking too much holy water at the temples where they went to worship. It was an annoying, frustrating problem, but Heron came up with a solution that was immensely clever.

Basically, people would drop tokens inside of the holy water dispenser, and the weight of the token would push against a lever that opened a small door. While the door was open, the holy water would fall out. Eventually, however, the coin would fall and the door would close—ensuring that people never took more than their fair share of holy water.

The craziest part? Modern society didn't really embrace his invention for about 1,800 years. Heron died around 70 A.D.; it wasn't until 1883, when inventor Percival Everett created a vending machine for postcards and note paper, that Heron's idea proved to have a lasting impact.

Granted, we use it to buy Cool Ranch Doritos these days rather than holy water, but the mechanisms are fairly similar—money goes in, gears turn, stuff comes out.

A vending machine for stamps and postcards from Japan, c. 1904. (Photo: Momotarou2012/WikiCommons CC BY-SA 3.0)

Today, the vending machine industry earns nearly $20 billion in revenue each year in the U.S. A standard vending machine costs around $3,400 on Amazon, and there are an estimated eight million vending machines in America, according to Vending Market Watch.

But the Achilles Heel of vending machines has always been their ability–or inability–to validate the money that is put into them. Surprisingly, it is much harder for the machines to authenticate paper money than it is for them to take coins.

Much like old 8-tracks, early vending machines that took dollars relied on a magnetic tape-head-style mechanism to detect whether a dollar had the correct amount of iron content. This eventually proved easy to defeat, because laser printers created output with similar amounts of iron-laced ink.

Starting in the early 1990s, vending machines switched to using what could best be described as low-resolution digital cameras to verify a dollar bill's validity. The device would look for specific patterns in the dollar, and if they didn't work, they didn't accept your dollar. That's why your crumpled-up bill never works. 

A man with a stamp vending machine, c. 1907. (Photo: Library of Congress

Often, counterfeiters will take lower-denomination bills, turn them into $20s or $100s, and pass those off as the real deal. Unfortunately for them, the infrared strip that is baked into most modern dollar bills doesn't lie. This strip can be detected by vending machines too, making it easy to figure out whether a bill is real or fake.

Another verification method for larger-denomination bills: All bills above $2 have a tiny string of mylar woven through it that can only be seen with an ultraviolet light—something else that mechanized dollar scanners look for.

Of course, this is all fairly complicated stuff for your average $3,400 vending machine. But the reason we use coins in many of the machines is because it is much easier for the machines to identify counterfeit quarters, dimes, and nickels.

An American quarter, for instance, has 119 ridges. Dimes have 118 ridges. Those ridges came about as a fraud-prevention device, and most vending machines can recognize them. The coin-operated mechanisms in vending machines are also common in other products, such as laundry machines, arcade games, and jukeboxes.

For the most part, all this technology—and the years of research that probably came with it—is worth it, since the National Automatic Merchandising Association suggests that the industry is worth a cool $42 billion

A vending machine from 1952. (Photo: Minnesota Historical Society/WikiCommons CC BY-SA 2.0)

While the industry has managed to maintain strength over the years due to your desire to eat Sun Chips at 2 a.m., it is not immune to short-term trends—something that can be highlighted by the rise (and fall) of the coin-operated television.

The devices—which first came about in the 1960s and 1970s—allowed people to pay a quarter to watch half an hour of local television, a respite that certainly came in handy during periods where you were basically stuck somewhere for a long time—think bus stations, airports, and laundromats.

The most well-known brand for coin-op televisions was the Tel-A-Chair, which was prominent at LAX. A 1970 Parade magazine article, recently resurfaced by Retrospace, highlights the fact that the chairs were moneymakers for both the company and the airport.

"It costs us $350 to manufacture a chair," creator John W. Rich noted. "And we give the airports and bus stations 35 percent of the revenue for the location. We've had requests from dozens of airports, rail-roads, bus stations, and beauty parlors. Wherever people wait, the Tel-A-Chair is a natural." 

It was a good idea, though one with a limited time frame. Within two decades of the Tel-A-Chair’s heyday, laptops and Game Boys became popular time-wasters. Today, we largely use smartphones, WiFi, and Netflix to kill our captive time. Who needs a coin-operated TV when you have Siri in your pocket?

A live bait vending machine in Michigan. (Photo: Dwight Burdette/WikiCommons CC BY 3.0)

Experiences were never the end goal of vending machines. When it comes down to it, Heron of Alexandria invented a device focused on giving you stuff on demand.

We’re in an age where ideas and content are easier than ever to acquire using the little devices in our pockets, instead of coin-operated machines that offer a cheap couple of minutes of fun. Beyond people clearly into it for the nostalgia, who needs to spend a quarter to play Donkey Kong when you can get in a game of 2048 for free?

Perhaps that’s why you’re way more likely to run into a vending machine for expensive electronics at the airport than a personalized television set or an arcade machine these days.

Experiences are less tangible than ever, and way harder to vend as a result; stuff, on the other hand, is still worth something. When you put a quarter into a vending machine, nine times out of ten, you’re in the market for more stuff.

A person willing to go out of his way to straighten out a dollar bill? That’s what they call a captive audience.

A version of this post originally appeared on Tedium, a twice-weekly newsletter that hunts for the end of the long tail