A history of vending machines, from chewing gum to 90-second pasta
First patent filed in Britain
The first patent for an automatic vending device was filed in Britain in 1857, according to Kerry Segrave's Vending Machines: An American Social History, one of the few books dedicated to the topic. The British patent was for a machine that would automatically dispense stamps, not food.
Vending machine concept crosses the Atlantic
The idea for a vending machine crossed the Atlantic shortly thereafter, and W.H. Fruen filed the first U.S. patent for a vending machine, inexplicably shaped to resemble a building in miniature, in 1884. It was supposed to work like this: When a coin was dropped into a slot in the machine, a lever would fall, which would cause the coin to roll off. That would open a valve that would dispense liquid into a cup (seen here on the front steps of the building). Fruen's design was never mass marketed, but the spread of vending machines across the country wasn't far behind.
First vending machines in New York
In 1888, vending machines selling Tutti-Frutti brand gum were deployed in New York's train stations, according to Segrave. Pictured here is an illustration from an 1894 patent that was transferred to the Tutti Frutti Automatic Vending Company. It used a "delivery slide" to dispense the product to the customer. Speaking to the rapid spread of the machines, in 1911, 18 major vending machine companies consolidated into the giant Autosales Gum and Chocolate Company. World domination ensued (maybe).
Gaming the machines
In their early decades, operators of vending-machines had to deal with a serious scourge: Slugs — and not the garden variety. Early vending machines were terrible at distinguishing between coins from the U.S. Mint and frauds made of other metals, wood, or sometimes even ice. Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, laws were passed banning the manufacture of objects designed to mimic coins; around the same time, vending-machine technology improved so that the machines were better able to detect and reject mimics.
John Sharnik, a New York Times reporter, described in 1950 how the latest slug-detecting technology worked: “Its [the vending machine's] 'brain' is a coin receptacle in the form of a channel, or group of channels, containing trip levers which yield only to objects of certain sizes, shapes and weights," he wrote. "With the magnets that line the channels, it can also bite a slug or counterfeit and fling it back at a would-be chiseler. When the coin is genuine, the machine goes gratefully into its act. The trip-levers spring a lock — either mechanically or by the closing of an electrical circuit — and, depending on the kind of commodity, a valve opens and starts pouring liquid, or a single package is dealt gently off the bottom of a vertically stacked deck." Magnets, in other words, would detect when the metal composition of a coin someone was trying to use didn't match its government-issued counterpart. This image is of a 1939 patent for a magnet-based vending machine coin selector.
Cold-beverage vending machines
As machine technologists battled fraudsters, they also sought new ways to provide food and drink through the machines. Cold-beverage vending machines that sold bottled soda, cooled by ice, were introduced in the 1930s, and before World War II were accompanied by machines that used electricity to stay cool. According to Segrave, by 1942, "tens of thousands of bottled soft drink machines were a familiar sight at grocery stores, service stations, and other locations across America."
Pepsi and Coke battle for territory
Soft-drink giants Pepsi-Cola and Coca-Cola entered into bidding wars to exclusively serve certain communities, and each got into the vending industry by developing innovations like the six-pack vending machine (Pepsi) and low-cost coolers (Coca-Cola), according to Vending Machines: An American Social History.
Paper-cup soda machines
Paper-cup soda machines were also prominent in the 1930s. Rather than producing a bottle, these would mix a flavor of soda with carbonated water to order or dispense drinks from already-carbonated tanks into a paper cup waiting for the customer. This patent illustration shows one possible setup.
Vending machines offer variety
Early machines offered single products, like peanuts, gumballs, or one kind of soda. An exciting development in the 1920s and 1930s was the introduction of choice into the vending world, or vending machines that offered multiple items.
Birth of the modern day vending machine
This marked the beginning of the spread of the type of machines we picture when we think about vending machines today. The image here, from a patent filed in 1929, is of a machine that could sell bottles in different varieties.