Ancient History

The World's First Vending Machine Is 2,000 Years Old

Is there anything better than a vending machine? Except when they're out of Hot Cheetos, of course. Or when the candy gets caught on on the hook instead of falling. Or when your Mountain Dew gets lodged in the dispenser, making the whole thing as useful as a money-eating box. Or when you get your arms stuck inside two different vending machines.

None of those are problems you'd have with the very first vending machine in the world — though your options would be a bit limited.

Holy Water for Sale, Get It While It's Holy

The first vending machine we know about was invented by a master engineer living in Roman-controlled Egypt during the first century C.E. Heron of Alexandria (sometimes called Hero) created something that looked like any old pitcher at first glance, but could dispense a set amount of holy water whenever a coin was dropped in the slot at the top.

The strange device solved a major problem that the churches of his town were struggling with. See, before you could enter certain temples in Egypt at the time, you had to cleanse yourself with sanctified water. But it was too much trouble to the priests to have to hand out the water at the door, blessing each handful as they did. And when the priests just left a large pool of pre-blessed water for worshippers to help themselves, they inevitably helped themselves to far more water than they needed.

The vending machine changed all that. The priests could just bless the water in the vending machine, then leave it at the door to mete out a reasonable amount (and do a little fundraising to boot). When a heavy enough coin was dropped in the slot at the top, it would pull out a stopper and let the water flow freely until a counterweight sealed it closed again.

Da Vinci Before Da Vinci

The next major advance in vending machine technology came about 1,800 years later when the invention of instant coffee made coffee dispensers a reality. But as for the mechanics of the machine itself, they were pretty much the same thing as Heron's device. Maybe it's not surprising that his design would survive the millennia — he was a Renaissance man who predated the Renaissance.

Heron was also responsible for the world's first steam engine, although lacking a machine to power, it ended up more a curio than a practical device. He also invented a set of "automatic doors" that could pop up in temples to very dramatic effect, and a fire engine capable of directing a high-pressure spray of water wherever it was needed. Basically, he was the Steve Jobs of the first century, but luckily for modern snack companies, he wasn't too protective of his intellectual property.

Get stories like this one in your inbox or your headphones: sign up for our daily email and subscribe to the Curiosity Daily podcast.

Learn more about how ancient and modern people used money in "The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World" by Niall Ferguson. The audiobook is free with an Audible trial. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Reuben Westmaas October 11, 2017

Curiosity uses cookies to improve site performance, for analytics and for advertising. By continuing to use our site, you accept our use of cookies, our Privacy Policy and Terms of Use.