Vending machines are a part of everyday life for most people. They can be found just about everywhere, from offices to schools to rest stops on the side of the highway. With the vending machines of today dispensing everything from sodas to electronics, one could be forgiven for thinking they are purely a modern invention. However, these devices actually have an ancient origin, though they have certainly changed considerably over the years.
Heron Alexandrius, also known as Hero of Alexandria, was a Greek inventor and professor who worked at the Library of Alexandria in the first century CE. Among his inventions was an early form of the steam engine, a surveying machine, and a wind-powered organ. He also invented the world’s first known vending machine.
This first machine of its kind did not dispense ancient Greek snacks and drinks. It was created by Hero to stop people from stealing holy water from temples.
People were routinely taking more holy water from the temples that they had paid for, which was causing them to lose money. To combat this, Hero’s vending machine dispensed a uniform amount of holy water when the correct amount of money was paid. The worshipper would have to put in the proper coin, which would fall into a pan that was attached to a lever. The lever would move when the coin hit and open a valve that dispensed the water that had been blessed by the temple priests. The coin would then fall from the pan after a few moments. This would cause the valve to close and stop the flow of water.
This invention helped the temples make money, and it made it easier for patrons to get the holy water they needed for proper worship. As it was such a success, it is surprising that its use was not extended to other areas of life in the ancient Greek world. One can almost imagine a machine that sold Greek wine or tasty baklava with the press of a button. This was not to be, however. It would take well over a thousand more years for the vending machine to make a comeback, and it is now a ubiquitous feature of modern life.