Remember that lovely machine that can save your life in the middle of a struggling for food? Because, as we know, “you are not you when you are hungry”, right?
The vending machine is popular all over the world, but little is known about its invention. In 1867, Simeon Denham patented the first fully automatic vending machine for stamps dispensing. Nevertheless, coin-operated devices sold tobacco in the taverns of England as early as 1615.
Disused old vending machine, St Martin's High Street, Stamford, UK
Japanese vending machine from 1904 Courtesy of WikiCommons & Momotarou2012
The original concept of such appliance working with coins was born in the 1st century AD in a place crammed with people fascinated by science and technology – ancient Alexandria (now in Egypt). The city was one of the most important centers of the Hellenistic and Roman civilizations and dominated the ancient scientific world for almost 1000 years without interruption.
Alexandria established its reputation by virtue of two impressive institutions: the Mouseion (Musaeum) and the Royal Library. The Institution of the Muses - this is the literally meaning of Mouseion – was a home of more than 1000 scientists who conducted research, taught, read and wrote, and collected all sorts of literature, under the protection of theMuses. They worked on Mouseion’s salary, indulged in free housing and food and produced the best academic material of the epoch. The Royal Library of Alexandria was part of this institution (yes, the one that has been unfortunately burned down yet in the Antiquity). It contained the largest papyri collection of the ancient world and altogether with the Mouseion represented a kind of learning and scholarship center, pretty much equivalent to the modern university.
Hero of Alexandria happened to be born in that city. He lived in 1st century AD and, as many in that place, was obsessed with the scientific work and research. He was probably part of the Institution of the Muses because his writings on mathematics, physics and mechanics were found in a form of lectures. As mathematician and engineer, Hero was a passionate inventor with a special focus on automated devices. His experiments in that area represented, in fact, some of the first formal research intocybernetics.
Hero of Alexandria was as prolific as an inventor as he was as a writer. Although lost in original, seven of his books have been preserved in Latin and Arabic translations - a good fortune, rare for many technical texts of the Antiquity. Leonardo da Vinci must have been truly grateful for that, as he has supposedly used Hero’s treatises in his experiments and inventions.
Apart of its scientific pursuits, 1st century Alexandria was known for its large religious communities. A great variety of beliefs and cults coexisted in that place, in a constant contest for new believers among the three largest ethnicities of the city: the Egyptians, the Greeks, and the Jewish.
Washing hands before entering the temple was a common ritual for almost all cult practices. This formality caused serious headaches to the priests as they had to ensure regular delivery of sacred water for that purpose.
Their task would not have been so overwhelming if it had not been the human inclination to wasting. People tended to use more water (no surprise!) form that they have paid for, increasing all the time the priests’ duties.
Hero’s engineering talentcame to their assistance. Among many other automatic machines, he has invented a sacrificial vessel that flowed only when a coin has been inserted. That was the first vending machine in human history!
Thanks to that device, priests not only reduced their daily work of blessing water, but earned a new income for the temples. (I imagine small stones or pebbles could have been used for the same purpose, but money is always better, right?).
How did this first vending machine actually work?
On the top of the vessel, there was a slot for inserting a coin of five drahmas. The coin fell on a small pan inside the vessel. As the pan was attached to a lever, when the coin was deposited its weight made the lever uplift. At the other side of the lever, there was suspended a valve. The valve opened up and let water flow out. When finally the coin fell from the pan, the lever snapped back closing the valve. The water stopped.
Simple and genius as that! The worshipers had their hands clean to enter the temple; the priests had their hands filled with coins to maintain their work.
Early modern vending machines used the same operating principle. Later, the electricity modified the functional method but kept the concept: money for goods! The new generation venders evolved even further accepting paying with credit cards. Their popularity have been growing so immensely that according to the European Vending Association, only in Europe there are approximately 3.7 million vending machines. They equal to the work of 140 workers for every single hot drink made by a machine.
What do you think is the most popular reason today for using vending machines, according to the European Vending Association?