It’s 8pm on the grand concourse at Central Station in the depths of the current lockdown. Apart from a handful of police on patrol there’s hardly a soul in sight, bar a few hapless commuters waiting for their inner city trains. If a tumbling tumbleweed suddenly rolled across the huge vacant space you would not be surprised. The coffee stand has long closed as have the various restaurants and takeaways. For those in need of nourishment only a somewhat miserable row of vending machines offer chips, chocolate bars and an assortment of sugary drinks.
Well thank God for vending machines you might say, if you are about to undertake that long lonely trip to the Blue Mountains, Central Coast of Wollongong. At least there is some sustenance and traveller comfort from a packet of Twisties or a super sized cookie. Perhaps it’s an appropriate time to look back at the role that these mechanical providers have played in our lives over the past half century.
It’s generally believed that the first vending machine appeared in Ancient Greece in 215 BC thanks to the mathematician Hero of Alexandria. The invention was a coin operated machine that dispensed ‘holy water’. Whilst automated vending machines have appeared right throughout history it was during the post-WWII period that they really came to the fore, particularly in the US and Japan.
In Japan, where there is currently about one vending machine for every 23 people, urban space is at a premium. Retailers have found it’s more economical to install a series of vending machines than pay expensive rental on an actual shop. Today Japan has a reported five million machines dispensing all manner of goods from mystery boxes containing just about anything to kinky used lingerie in their prolific sex shops. Like the Pachinko gambling craze there is something about interaction with a robot like machine that digs deep into the Japanese psyche.
In America accelerated post war industrialisation saw an explosion of vending machines designed to capture the impulse and convenience market. You could buy your morning paper from a machine, followed by a Vendo-O-Matic hot coffee and then an instantly delivered lunch at the Automat. Just about anything that could be enclosed in a coin operated servant was available from bags of potatoes to instant life insurance policies if you were about to board an interstate flight.
Here in Australia we were not so tech friendly but vending machines still became a regular part of our lives. The chip machine, synonymous with pubs, clubs and railway stations has been a fixture for decades, often bearing the dents of dissatisfied customers whose nuts have jammed in the delivery mechanism (ouch!). For many years it was common to find a condom vending machine in men’s toilets with the omnipresent graffiti “Worst chewing gum I ever tasted”. Cigarette machines were once common place but are now heavily restricted to areas of pubs and clubs for the over 18 year olds.
The vending machine is however an evolving species and new products appear on the market everyday. You can now buy Bitcoin from a vending machine and at the height of the pandemic last year machines selling face masks and sanitiser (albeit at an outrageous premium) surfaced on railways stations and in bus terminals. Some years ago the University of Sydney rolled out a book vending machine as part of a novel initiative to modernise its libraries. I’m not sure if they still exist but just imagine trying to get a copy of the 1463 page Poor Fellow My Country out of that slot at the bottom.
Here today, gone tomorrow, seems to be the never ending story of many vending machines. The DVD you once selected for a weekend borrow from a dispenser at the local shopping centre is now far more convenient to stream and what about if you need a postage stamp at short notice. Who remembers when nearly every post office had a machine out front which spat out stamps 24/7 – then again who sends letters today?
Ironically many of today’s superseded vending machines are worth more now than when they were originally produced. Those that didn’t go to landfill are now eagerly snapped up by nostalgia ridden collectors who love nothing more than having a big metal box that dispenses hot salted nuts in their man cave.
And who’s to say that in years to come we will not see the Vax-O-Matic, a revolutionary vaccine dispensing machine, situated in every shopping mall and 7/11. Just stick your arm in the opening and select from either Pfizer, Moderna or Johnson & Johnson. The possibilities are unlimited!