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The Flat Cap on ... Vending Machines

The Flat Cap on Vending Machines

Today The Flat Cap has been on a visit to the seaside by train. The Flat Cap likes trains. Whilst at the railway station he decided to purchase a drink from the cafeteria. As there was a rather long queue he decided to get a cold can of pop from a vending machine on the station forecourt. After mumbling to himself about the ridiculous price of his drink The Flat Cap began thinking about vending machines in general. This prompted him to find out a bit more about their origins and the range of things they sell.

Overcharging for machine vended drinks is nothing new. Almost two thousand years ago the Greek engineer and mathematician Hero of Alexandria devised a machine that, at a cost, provided holy water to Egyptian temple visitors. Using a series of valves, levers and weights the machine accepted a coin which then triggered the mechanism to dispense the water. The machines were frequently vandalised or robbed of their takings by disgruntled tourists and so Hero was forced to invent lots of other useful things just to get by. Because he was always so busy inventing things historians consider him to be the greatest experimenter of antiquity. Hero moved home a lot throughout his life, and it was probably during one of these house moves that many of his writings and designs were lost. Fortunately some did survive in Arabic manuscripts, and this is how we know he was so clever.

It was another thousand years before history recorded the next type of vending machine. In 1076 machines that dispensed pencils appeared outside schools and libraries all across China. The inventor’s name isn’t recorded. Maybe a note was made somewhere, but it’s either been lost or misplaced. Or maybe it was written down with one of the pencils on sale and thus faded over time. The introduction of the machines meant that Chinese school children had little excuse for not doing their homework, and if they came to school without a writing implement they were sent straight to the automated pencil seller. Loose change was much valued in China and the manufacture of small purses and wallets increased in line with the proliferation of pencil vending machines which only took the smaller denomination coins. Unfortunately it was several hundred years before someone thought to invent a machine that would give change for banknotes.

Vending machines have been adapted to sell a wide range of things. One of the most unusual was life insurance policies. Sited at major U.S airports between the 1950s and 1970s passengers could buy a policy to cover their death should the aircraft crash. The practice gradually waned as air travel became safer and public attitudes changed. Nevertheless some opportunist criminals sought to load aeroplanes with explosives in order to claim the insurance. In one example a Denver businesswoman’s son hid explosives inside a Christmas present. The package duly detonated on her flight and resulted in the death of 39 passengers and five airline crew. He admitted to the FBI that he committed this crime for the payout, and was subsequently executed in a gas chamber. Another problem with buying a last minute insurance policy from a vending machine is that nobody might know. If the aeroplane did crash and burn the policy would likely go up in smoke along with you and the rest of your hand luggage, and your dependants might never realise they could have made a claim.

The growth of vending machines, and the range of products that they can sell has brought its own problems. In countries with lots of fat people there have been campaigns to limit their use. In 2003 California state legislators banned the sale of machine-dispensed drinks and snacks in elementary schools. When The Flat Cap was a child there were no laws to help him lose weight. Instead he was told to play out a lot (and in all weathers), and forced to walk the two miles to and from school. This kept him healthy until he reached the age of fourteen and discovered cigarette vending machines. Unfortunately for The Flat Cap these machines were not banned in England until 2011.

As The Flat Cap waited for his train a man called Steve came to replenish one of the other vending machines with bars of chocolate. He seemed very knowledgeable and volunteered the following vending machine related facts:

  • The United States has more vending machines than any other country

  • Some vending machines are so clever that they can make chips, or squeeze oranges

  • The condom machine in the gentleman’s toilet of The Flat Cap’s local pub gobbles up your pound coins without ever releasing its contents, but the clientele are largely too embarrassed to ask the bar staff for a refund

  • There are vending machines in affluent areas of the United States that dispense caviar and truffles

  • Because vending machines take coins people are always looking to find cheaper value coins that fit in place of their more expensive counterparts. NB a ten baht coin from Thailand is approximately the same size and weight as a two euro coin, and worth only about an eighth of its European twin.

  • Surrey farmer Mr. R Wells spent years trying to get planning permission for his egg vending machine. When it was finally granted in 1963 the price of a dozen eggs was five shillings (25p). Unfortunately the machine fell over during a thunderstorm and thereafter Mr. Wells was reduced to selling his eggs from a wheelbarrow outside the farm gates

  • Early Coca Cola vending machines in good condition are worth more than £150,000

  • American car dealer Carvana introduced the world’s first fully automated, coin operated car vending machine

  • Japan has more vending machines per capita than any other country. This is because you can buy almost anything from Japanese vending machines including hot meals, toilet paper, and even pornography

  • After charging for car parking, hospital vending machines provide the second largest source of NHS income

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