Vending Machines Are Fun!

Vending machines are ingenious and interesting. People love them. They are fun to use and convenient. The first vending machine, in the first century, dispensed holy water.

Vending machines came into prominence in the industrial age. The first vending machines sold post cards in London in the early 1800’s. The first American machine was built in  1888 by Thomas Adams Gum Company, selling gum on New York City train platforms.

Very old candy vending machine

Small games were added to these machines in 1897, when Pulver Manufacturing Company added small figures that spun around when a purchase was made. And this spawned a whole generation of devices known as trade stimulater’s which were undoubtedly the precursor to pin ball machines and slot machines.

For two cents it gave you a low voltage shock

Japan has the most vending machines of any country with one machine for every 23 people. They dispense everything from rice to pornography as well as iPods, live plants, sexual lubricants, live lobsters, fresh meat and eggs.

egg vending machine

I can remember seeing my dad off at the airport in the 1960’s and he bought insurance out of a vending machine. This was profitable for the insurer because the risk of a plane going down was low, statistically very low. It paid out to the survivors for the death of the buyer. These vendors gradually disappeared; they had to pay out a few to many I guess.

When I lived in Saskatoon as a child there was a machine in the corner store and if you put in two cents and grabbed the handles it would give you a low voltage shock. Usually I and my friends would hold hands so that we could share the joy. Yes, it does seem a weird.

 Don’t pull! It’s not worth it! 

Probably the most profitable machines are the ones with peanuts, or hard candy, gumballs, that kind of thing. The person puts a nickel in, probably about a quarter now, and turns the crank and it’s a screw like device and when it gets to the end the customer opens the silver swing door and fills their hand. The stuff in there won’t spoil and it doesn’t require any power so maintenance is cheap and there is a high mark up; bulk  gumballs are 2 cents and they sell for a quarter. That’s profit! And they are not easy to steal from unless you take the whole machine.

Places like hospitals have a lot of vending machines. When I worked at Royal Colombian Hospital they had a lot of machines on the lower level. It was a vend cafeteria. After hours it was just the vending machines. Most of these modern machines take five, ten and even twenty dollar bills. Some of them are a little touchy about accepting paper. I’m not sure why, Canadian money has more safeguards than US paper. These machines sold food you could heat up in the microwaves. I mean it was snacks but you could assemble a meal out of them.

Vending Drink Machine

Before we get too much further I think I should mention that if your treat gets stuck in the machine you can try pushing it through with another purchase or calling the number that is provided somewhere on the machine, usually on the bottom where change comes out, but what you shouldn’t do is try to tilt the machine and get your goodies that way. These machines often have a high center of gravity and what happens is that they can fall on you and crush you to death. It happens. They warn you on the machine not to do it. Don’t pull! It’s not worth it! The Journal of the American Medical Association documents 15 cases in 2011 of crush accidents and three of them died and the other 12 required hospitalizations for their injuries. We have all done it. I’ve done the rocking thing. The deal is that it only requires a twenty percent tilt angle to fall on you. What’s worse? Losing a couple of bucks or—picture yourself with just your arms sticking out from under a huge machine and a puddle of blood seeping out. That would actually be a funny scene in a movie, “Gimme my Ding Dong you bleep bleep piece of bleep!” Crash! Then total silence. They weigh over 800 pounds these machines.

 I saw one at Hooters in Vegas

No shaking the vending machine

When I first moved to Vegas I had a bag full of Canadian coins. I’d just collected them and when I took off from Vancouver I threw them into the trunk of my Dodge. I’m living there for a while and I’m hanging  around downtown and I’m in the Pioneer and I notice penny slots. I go to the car and grab them. See, these are slots. It’s pretty dull. I’m just trying to get rid of them, I want to lose. I actually hit: 1200 coins. That’s twelve bucks. You weren’t supposed to use Canadian coins in their machines. The exchange rate at this time was something like 68%.

But nobody caught me and I finally got tired of trying to lose and went somewhere else. Coin fraud isn’t too much of a problem for vending machine operators in North America, especially when their machines are further south of the Canadian border. Many US machines won’t dispense for Canadian coins because of a different composition, even though the coins are the same size. Besides which the Canadian dollar has been close to par for a number of years now and sometimes over par. I can remember using Canadian coins in US machines and losing the coin without getting my purchase. What was I going to do? Complain? I was trying to cheat the machine.

It’s more of a problem in Europe where there are so many different currencies of similar size and consistency.

Vending machines don’t just dispense food or other products, you can hook up to the Internet from a pay machine, I saw one at Hooters in Vegas. There are machines that can charge your iPod, for example. You can get your shoes shined. Fresh cooked French fries. I used one of those. They were good French fries.

charger vending machines

When I lived in NY in my early childhood, we sometimes went in the Horn and Hardart Cafeteria. This was a restaurant that had these little cubby hole deals and you could put your coins in and the door opened, glass doors. Baked beans, macaroni and cheese, creamed spinach, buns, beans and fish cakes, and coffee, later on Salisbury steak and stew. Horn and Hardart opened their first automat in 1902. The restaurants were popular during the depression.
When people took a selection the small cubicle was replenished by unseen workers from behind the dispenser. Women gave out change in nickels. In the 1940’s and’50’s more than 50 Horn and Hardart restaurants served 350,000 customers a day in New York City. I was fasinated with the place when I was a kid.

 They are ready to dispense at any hour of any day

Fast food restaurants contributed to putting them out of business. The last New York Horn and Hardart closed in 1991.

Have you ever seen those honor vending systems? Usually in an office lunch room, the products are unsecured and they are in a cardboard enclosure and you drop the money in a slot in a cardboard enclosure and take your selection. That probably wouldn’t be a profitable business everywhere. Presumably white collar types would be honest as opposed to menial workers, but maybe not. I have seen these things before as a casual worker. I can’t remember if I stole from it or not.

Newspaper dispensers are honor systems. Put your money in and grab a paper, a single paper rather than two or the whole lot of them. These paper boxes have warnings, box under surveillance, but I doubt it.

So what’s the deal with vending machines? 

Here’s some you maybe didn’t think of. You put a dime in a telescope and you can watch things, at look out places, on top of a mountain. Or get condoms and Tampax in bathrooms. You can rent DVDs in the supermarket now. I think that’s really good, but you need a credit card . It’s only a buck and a half.

There aren’t any more cigarette vending machines in schools. They also removed pop dispensers from some schools in a effort to combat juvenile obesity.

Safeway had a machine that would count your coins and give you a receipt and took seven percent of your loot, which isn’t too bad if you don’t feel like counting and packing coins. I don’t know why they got rid of them, seven percent with a low maintenance cost seems like a nice mark up.

So what’s the deal with vending machines? I’m still trying to nail down why, exactly why I like them so much. Maybe I prefer not to interact with people. It’s fast, it’s easy, I never got a bad product. It’s not always cheap, but it’s also not prohibitive. Why wait in line to buy something that you can get immediately from a machine. Although I don’t drink, some of these machines in Europe dispense booze. There is one in Germany that sells bicycle inner tubes. They must do a lot of biking around there. There is a machine in the Netherlands that dispenses library books. I don’t know, I thought the library was free. Maybe it is free and you use your library card to get a book. They do have an automatic check out machine in my local library. The Netherlands machine probably allows people to borrow after library hours.

That is another aspect of the attraction of vending machines, they are ready to dispense at any hour of any day. In hospitals, ferry terminals, bus and train stations, airports, anywhere that people gather and wait, day or night.

Book vending machine!

About Jesse Kaellis

Jesse Kaellis is a full-time writer, published author and resident blogger for Vending World. He writes for many online publications such as One Wealthy Team and Menshealth Direct. His autobiography Early Out was published by SmashWords after shortlisting on the Simon Fraser University First Book Contest in conjunction with Anvil Press (Vancouver, Canada).

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