Being Modern: Vending machines

Vending machines? They've been around for ever, we hear you say; what's so modern about them? Well, yes, they have been around a long time – but the products they now offer far exceed the expectations of any Victorian gent, the first to benefit from these coin-operated mechanical contraptions, which sold postcards as long ago as the 1880s.

It was not longer after the machines made their first appearance in London than the publisher Robert Carlisle chanced upon the idea of selling books through them – and our American cousins developed the idea to suit their own idiosyncracies, which is to say the Thomas Adams Gum Company set up the instruments on the subway platforms of New York to flog chewing gum.

Machines that dispensed soft drinks in cups came in the 1920s, followed by cigarettes, condoms (in public toilets and outside pharmacies), life-insurance policies (from the 1950s, in airports in the US – a charming show of faith in the carriers), cologne and, perhaps most optimistically, "pieces of sky", a concept dreamt up by Yoko Ono in 1966. In 1970, Texans were assailed by the world's first speaking vending machine, the Venda Talker which, on payment of a coin, would say "Thank you". And they say manners don't cost...

But it is the industry's most recent innovations that really catch the eye. While we've all become used to getting a screamingly hot coffee in a plasticcup from one of these contraptions, how many of us have bought a live Shanghai crab (above)? They're chilled to 5C so they lay dormant, ready for "catching". Then there's MP3 players, Buddhist prayer bead-rolls and fresh eggs in Japan, make-up, wine and bikinis in the States, chips in Australia, bait in Spain and burgers in the Netherlands.

And what do we have in the UK? Bikes (in London, at least, thanks to Boris), ballet shoes courtesy of Rollasole, for when heels are causing a world of pain, and gold bars (in the Westfield shopping centre, to take advantage of current world prices . Vending machines not modern? Think again...

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