Vending machines of the ancient world

Back in 2006, the Smithsonian talked to John Humphrey, University of Calgary professor of Greek and Roman studies, about the lost inventions of the ancient world, including this Holy Water Vending Machine from the first century AD:
World's First Vending Machine
Inventor: Hero (busy man)
Date: First century A.D.
How it works: A person puts a coin in a slot at the top of a box. The coin hits a metal lever, like a balance beam. On the other end of the beam is a string tied to a plug that stops a container of liquid. As the beam tilts from the weight of the coin, the string lifts the plug and dispenses the desired drink until the coin drops off the beam.
Proof of complexity: Early modern vending machines actually used a similar system, before electrical machines took over.
Quirk: It was devised to distribute Holy Water at temples, because "people were taking more Holy Water than they were paying for," Humphrey says.
Old World, High Tech (via Kottke)


  1. I’m glad to see Heron getting a bit of attention. My current research is on his work “On Automaton-Making”, which i’m translating and writing a commentary on. Here are a couple of videos of the automata in action, as recreated by Kostas Kotsanas, who has a small museum dedicated to Ancient Greek Technology in Katakolo.

  2. I came across a coffee vending machine that promised excellent coffee. I’d seen these things a lot as a kid, especially at ski lodges, hadn’t seen one in a while. In the days of baristas and Starbucks I was doubtful it would produce what I know thought of as coffee. A technological optimist, I wondered if they’d updated the process and done it better. I gave it my dollar. A chunking noise. No cup issued forth. Streams of hot looking brown water down the grate. Which is exactly how they seemed to work when I was a kid. Still don’t know how it tastes, but oddly satisfied my nostalgia of thirty years ago.

    1. Snig, there is a laundromat near my apartment that has a coffee/hot chocolate machine. It’s not one of the old ones, but it does still throw a cup on a grate and fill it with stuff, only now it’s about the size of a bar-top video quiz machine. I gave this machine money once, for basically the same reason as you, and the hot chocolate it returned to me was thin and hot-watery, but about as much “hot chocolate” sensation as I would require if I was bored at an airport or something.

      I do have to launder a whole bunch of pants this weekend, so maybe I’ll take them there, get a coffee this time, and report back.

  3. Heron and his fellow ancient mechanical engineers had a lot of interesting technological ideas — the thing was, in Greco-Roman culture with free slave labor, the motivation for labor saving devices is minimal as compared to cultures where labor costs are a big fraction of all costs — this is the same reason why the American North industrialized whereas the slave-holding South didn’t for the most part.

  4. Dr. Humphrey is a great professor. I took an intro to Greek and Roman studies with him about a million years ago, and it was wonderful.

  5. “people were taking more Holy Water than they were paying for,” Humphrey says.

    Huh?! This guy would have fit in perfectly with the suits at Dasani (Coca Cola).

  6. I’ve worked in a couple of offices that had modern coffee/hot cocoa dispensers which “brew” each cup individually instead of dispensing from a premade reservoir or use instant or whatever. You can see the machinery at work, unlike the old “police station” coffee machines from the 60s & 70s. There’s a roll of filter paper that acts as a conveyor belt; a measure of beans is ground and deposited thereupon. Then a thing descends on the grounds and blasts hot water through into your cup. You could even tell it to make ½ coffee and ½ cocoa, which was instrumental in weaning myself off the goddamned stuff.

    Go Tea (mm)!

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