The Subversive Vending Machine

The liberatory history of automated commerce


In 1819 the English publisher, bookseller, and radical Richard Carlisle was sentenced to three years in prison for blasphemy and seditious libel. Carlisle's imprisonment was partly due to his publication of pamphlets exposing what's now known as the Peterloo Massacre, in which a cavalry brigade attacked tens of thousands of protesters who had gathered to call for reforms to Parliament, and partly because he published the banned works of enlightenment figures such as Thomas Paine.

In his quirky book Vending Machines: Coined Consumerism (Mark Batty), Christopher D. Salyers notes that upon his release from prison, Carlisle thought he could skirt laws banning controversial books by constructing a machine that "dropped a customer's desired book after money was inserted and a dial positioned to a corresponding number." Carlisle was rearrested anyway, but the liberating potential he saw in the anonymity of automated vending has certainly been validated.

For nearly a century before the Internet put the anonymous consumption of vices literally at the world's fingertips, vending machines dispensed taboo wares, experiences, and entertainment free from the gaze of prying eyes. Salyers argues that the first vending machines in wide use were the snuff and tobacco boxes in 17th century English taverns, appropriate forerunners to the ubiquitous, plastic-handled cigarette dispensers that populated bars, bowling allies, and restaurants in the second half of the 20th century. Be it the condom machine in the gas station bathroom, the coin-operated peep show, the pinball craze that prompted a moral panic in the 1940s, truant hoods spending afternoons in smoke-blanketed video game arcades in the 1980s, or the rebellious rock 'n' roll dispensing jukebox, there has always been a subversive element to coin-operated commerce. Even the Norman Rockwell–celebrated Coca-Cola machine has gone rogue, as public health activists now fault soda and candy—and, in particular, the widespread availability of both through vending machines—for the fattening of American children.

Salyers himself seems torn on the value of vending machines. He's awed by the contraption's continual evolution and ability to adapt, but where a libertarian might celebrate the ease, convenience, privacy, and cost savings associated with transactions free of human interaction, Salyers strikes a more skeptical tone, lamenting that "Erasing the element of human persuasion allows the subliminal a tighter chokehold on our inner desire to consume." As a warning, he cites a passage in Philip K. Dick's novel The Game Players of Titan in which newspaper vending machines come to life, hounding would-be consumers by screaming out headlines until someone buys a paper to shut the thing up. He then claims, oddly, that Japanese Coke machines automatically raising their prices in hot weather are a testament to Dick's alarming prophecy.

Still, whatever anti-consumerist sentiments Salyers may harbor, his book is a celebration of automated vending. There are only three sections of extended copy: the author's introduction, an interview with the vending machine marketing executive Michael Keferl, and an interview with Clark Whittington, an artist who has repurposed old cigarette machines to sell his work. The remaining 120 or so pages provide a delightful photographic tribute to the diversity, innovation and evolution of mechanical vendors. There is a machine in Italy that "whips up flour, water, tomato sauce and fresh ingredients to produce a piping-hot-pizza in about three minutes." After the global economic downturn, a machine popped up at Germany's Frankfurt Airport dispensing one-gram wafers of gold. In a drug-prone section of Sydney, Australia, a machine dispenses clean hypodermic needles. At a beverage machine in Tokyo, consumers pay for libations not in money but by watching a 30-second advertisement.

The "Retro" section features 1950s stamp machines, rust-infested lipstick dispensers, and graffitied photo booths. "Soda" includes a snapshot of a stalwart Coca-Cola machine that "stands alone in the middle of a frozen, foggy" ramp on the tarmac at Edinburgh Airport in Scotland. There is also a cocoa machine that sits 12,000 feet above sea level near the summit of Japan's Mount Fuji.

In Japan, automated vending abounds in every conceivable variety. The country gets an entire section of the book, where you will see images of a Hello Kitty–themed popcorn dispenser, machines that dispense live turtles and "pet roaches," life-size contraptions that consumers can actually walk through, and—predictably—an endless variety of machines that distribute porn (though Salyers says Japan's infamous "used panty" machines are basically an urban legend). Americans weary of the Nanny State will also marvel at Japan's easily accessible cigarette, beer, and even liquor machines.

So where do vending machines go from here? You might expect the anonymity, value, and one-click ease afforded by Internet shopping to threaten the comparative advantages that vending machines have traditionally enjoyed. In some areas—movies, music, news—the Internet offers more immediacy than a walk or drive to the nearest newspaper machine or Redbox. With more tangible, everyday products, on the other hand, vending machines are obviously more convenient. The World Wide Web is never going to deliver a Dr. Pepper through your laptop.

But it's probably more useful to think of the Internet as an extension of the vending machine ethos, not a replacement. Vice, taboo, and subversion abound on the Web, often beyond not only the gaze of prying eyes but the grasp of prohibitionists. Had a tech-savvy Richard Carlisle anonymously published his account of Peterloo or distributed PDFs of The Rights of Man from a blog hosted offshore, the Crown might never have found him. 

Radley Balko ( is a senior editor at reason.