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From Holy Water to the Automat: Great Strides in Self-Service

 One of the greatest inventors of the ancient world was Heron Alexandrinus, aka Hero of Alexandria, who racked up an incredible 80 inventions throughout his lifetime in the first century CE.  One of Heron’s remarkable inventions was an early (and possibly the first) steam engine.  But one that we moderns might least expect is one that we seldom associate with the ancient world: the vending machine.


Heron’s vending machine sold one thing: holy water.  He invented it in order to stop the theft of holy water from the temples.  The way it worked was you’d put a 5 drachma coin in a slot.  The coin would land on one end of a lever which, when depressed, would allow holy water to trickle out of a spout.  As long as the coin was balanced on the end of the lever, the water would keep coming.  The coin would remain balanced for a short while.  When it dropped off the lever, a counterweight was released, closing the spout and preventing anyone from taking more holy water than they paid for.  It was ingenious, and successful, and the first vending machine in recorded history.


The world’s first vending machine, preventing theft of holy water.


These vending machines, the first of their kind, fell out of use after Heron’s day, probably due to the coming of Christianity to Egypt.  Christians didn’t sell holy water, so the invention didn’t serve a purpose.  Vending machines wouldn’t make a comeback until the 17th century, when a new design allowed the purchaser to insert a coin and take tobacco or snuff.  These vending machines weren’t nearly as sophisticated as Heron’s, since once opened, you’d have access to the entire contents of the machine.  You were expected to take only as much tobacco or snuff as you were allowed, which is why these machines were called “honor boxes”.  Honor boxes remained regular features in English pubs well into the 19th century, usually as brass boxes that sat on the bar for the patrons to use, no matter how honorable an individual might or might not be.


An English honor box: put your coin in the slot, then lift the handle for your tobacco.


Following an 1800-year hiatus, mechanical engineering resurfaced in vending machines in 1867, when a patent was issued in Germany for a vending machine that sold cigarettes and handkerchiefs.  That same year, a British patent was issued for a coin-operated fortune-telling machine.  The first vending machine that really caught on was invented by British engineer Percival Everitt in 1883.  His machine sold postcards and stationery, and was immediately popular all over the UK.  


After this, there was a rush to invent more and better vending machines.  The public was receptive, even while critics scoffed. Thomas Adams of the Adams Gum Company operated the first gum machines in New York in 1884, which were dismissed as mere novelty, an idea that would never amount to anything.  Other vending machines were developed in Europe and America throughout the late 19th century, to varying degrees of success.  Perhaps the most “modern” vending machine of this time was the one invented by German engineer Max Sielaff in 1886.  Originally designed to vend cigarettes and buttons and other sundry items, Sielaff’s machines, built at the Theodor Bergmann Metal Works, were vending Cologne chocolatier Ludwig Stollwerk’s chocolate bars by the early 1890s.  In 1894, Sielaff, Bergmann and Stollwerk got together and formed a company called Deutsche Automatengesellschaft (mercifully abbreviated as DAG).  DAG grew an empire of over 10,000 vending machines throughout Germany.


Impressive, yes, but that was not Sielaff’s last achievement.  In 1896, Sielaff conceived of a restaurant that dispensed food and drink, both hot and cold, entirely from vending machines.  The first vending machine restaurant opened that year, and it was wildly successful.


A postcard from the “Automatic Restaurant” in Karlsruhe, Germany, 1903.


Imitation being the highest form of compliment, Philadelphia restauranteurs Horn & Hardart set about paying a big compliment to DAG.  In 1902, they opened the first coin-op restaurant in America, dubbing it the automat.  In 1912, they introduced the automat to New York, and enjoyed a good deal of success throughout Northeastern cities.  Originally, automats took only nickels, and a cashier was always on hand to break larger coins or bills for use in the automats’ slots.  The cashiers were usually women, handing nickels over the large marble counters, rubber gloves on their hands.  They were casually known as “nickel-throwers”.


The word automat comes from the Greek automatos, meaning “self-serving”.  Customers would serve themselves, too.  They’d look at the food behind the little glass windows and take what they wanted, popping nickels in the slot to open the door and placing the plates on their trays.  This is where the automation in these cafeterias ended.  What was going on behind the doors was not automated at all.  As a customer took a sandwich or a slice of cake out of one small window, a worker on the other side would slide another plate in to replace it.  Line cooks kept the hot food coming from the kitchens in the back.  To the casual observer, it might have looked as though the machines had taken over, but in fact it was still very much a human-run operation.


Two humans who were very much involved in operations were Horn and Hardart themselves.  They maintained a strict fresh-food policy, mandating that no food be left in the automat cases overnight.  They also ate at the automat daily, at the automat’s tables, just like regular customers.  They were joined by other executives of their company.  They would regularly test new menu items and encourage suggestions for new ones.  Between taste testings, they would sip their restaurants’ own black coffee to cleanse the palate.


The automat had a reputation for coffee, too.  Before Starbucks offered a quality four-dollar lattè, the automat offered a good cup of coffee for a nickel, keeping that price steady from the founding of the enterprise until 1950, when they finally had to relent to market demands and raise the price.  The automat’s coffee was a revolution, though.  East Coast coffee before then was… different.  It was typically boiled for a long time with crushed eggshells (to ensure a clearer brew), and came out thicker and more bitter than what we think of as good coffee today.  The automat brewed coffee with an automatic drip process, and served it from large urns, pouring out through spigots shaped like dolphins, imitating a Pompeian fountain. 


This raised the standards of consumers everywhere.  The coffee didn’t just sit around, either.  When an employee brewed an urn of coffee, they’d fill out a card giving the exact time it was made.  Whatever was still in there after twenty minutes was thrown out, and a new batch was made.  Though automat’s coffee inspired Irving Berlin’s 1932 song “Let’s Have Another Cup of Coffee”, brimming with Depression-era optimism.  The song’s lyrics don’t explicitly reference the automat, but the connection was made clear by the automat-themed set design of the 1932 stage musical Face the Music.  Horn and Hardart were so delighted, they adopted it as the automat’s theme song.


A postcard from the 1930s shows how easy it was to serve yourself at the automat.


Automats were popular with the working class, as well as with unemployed actors, writers, musicians and other artists.  Playwright Neil Simon once remembered the automat as “the Maxim’s of the disenfranchised” in a 1987 interview, referring to the Parisian restaurant that enjoyed a status as the stomping ground of the rich and famous throughout the 20th century.


In the 1970s, automats started to see a decline, even while vending machines themselves continued to thrive.  Fast food was eating the automat’s lunch, beating it for price and convenience.  To add to the automat’s problems, inflation came along.  Coins no longer had the purchasing power they had in the past, making it difficult to buy much of anything with change.  What sustained the automat more than anything was nostalgia, but even that wasn’t enough to keep them afloat.  In 1991, the last automat in New York closed.  Horn & Hardart cut their losses, selling most of their old automats’ locations to Burger King. 


While automats disappeared from cities, passenger trains in the United States and Europe sometimes featured automat cars.  Amtrak’s last automat car was discontinued in 2001, giving the automat only the briefest flicker of life in the 21st century.


Image result for horn and hardart automat coffee urn

This is the device that dispensed your nickel cup of coffee, always the same amount for the same price.


Fred Waring and his Pennsylvanians perform Irving Berlin’s “Let’s Have Another Cup of Coffee”:




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