Coining it

The material world
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The Independent Culture
Britons now deposit nearly pounds 2bn into slot machines every year. And it's not just stale bars of chocolate on lonely platforms that we're emptying our silver-laden pockets for. A fusion of today's technology and entrepreneurial enthusiasm has introduced the British consumer to vended items as varied as cameras, videos, CDs, perfume, swimming hats, washing powder, maggots and other live fishing bait, French fries, pizza, pasta, freshly ground coffee, burgers, sandwiches, ice-cream - even a plate of chicken tikka masala ejected complete with fork and napkin.

And every country has different preferences: fresh flowers go down well in Switzerland and machines selling bread are big in Belgium, yet both have made no impression here.

Vending especially makes sense in the catering trade. Expensive retail space, surly waiters, costly cooks, unhygenic kitchens and food wastage are all instantly banished, to be replaced by 24-hour service crammed into a tiny space. The downside is expensive machinery and, as is often the case, revolting cuisine.

My own worst gastronomic experience ever was sampling meals from a machine called Today's Choice. Holding 200 sealed portions of foods pre-cooked up to 18 months beforehand, it dispenses a choice of six adventurous meals including almost indistinguishable beef and chicken casseroles and something best described as chilli con carnage.

The first recorded coin-operated devices appeared during the Hellenistic period. Alexandrians in Egypt were mystified when temple doors opened after coins were deposited, or when musical organs came alive when a five- drachma coin was inserted.

But it wasn't until the end of the last century that vending machines took off in a big way. By the beginning of the 20th century, automatic restaurants had been installed in most large cities in Europe and America. So strong was the trend to vend that the entire catering facilities at Lord's cricket ground were automatic. Horn and Hardart opened the first of its famous automats (providing cheap food and drinks from coin-op compartments) in America from 1902, and these thrived until the 1950s.

And today's lifestyles are bringing vending back. Convenience foods and snack eating are usurping conventional meals. A survey conducted by catering giant RSGB found the average meal break for most British workers lasts just 32 minutes. And we increasingly buy CDs at supermarkets and sandwiches at petrol stations.

Given a choice, most bank customers will use a cashpoint to withdraw money than visit a cashier.

In early 1995 a Leeds public house trialled a vending machine which dispensed seven brands of bottled beers. But, as any self-respecting drunk could have told you, building a rapport with the publican is crucial in serious drinking. That is until they invent a machine that can dispense a beer and hold a conversation about sex and soccer at the same time.

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