Monday, Monday – not that you needed the reminder.

Here’s yesterday’s Sunday Times column, it’s about mad vending machines. Did you know that in USA in the 70’s you could by a life insurance policy out of vending machines in airports. True story. I love it when The Man takes shameless advantage of paranoia.

Read on for more.


You’ve got to love the breadth and depth of the human imagination. Did you know that in Japan there are vending machines that give out the telephone numbers of random women? Only in Japan, or rather, only in a vending machine. They’re so much more than just outlets for fizzy drinks, smokes, or bags of crisps.

They started out humbly enough, but future-trend spotters predict a rise in smart vending machines with wild innovations. They will be curious conveniences with retina display, touch screens, sensors and video analytics that will be able to tell your age, height, eye colour, gender, and even your fizzy drink preference, when you stand in front of it.

But first, back to the past. The earliest mention of a vending machine can be traced all the way back to the first century, to a machine that accepted a coin and dispensed holy water in exchange. Actually these still exist today, only now they’re called coffee machines.

Over the next bunch of decades vending machines became much more advanced, so much so that they even inspired the invention of modern day pinball and slot machines. And now there’s not much you won’t find in them. Particularly in Japan, where they’ve become an astonishingly profitable endeavour, worth billions annually. All those condoms, fizzy drinks and bouncy balls clearly add up. In 1999, an estimated 5.6 million coin-operated vending machines in Japan generated more than $53 billion in sales.

There’s one machine for every 23 people living there, and you’ll find everything from toilet paper to pornography, condoms, rhinoceros beetles (which they collect as pets), and even live bait for fishing (well, I hope it’s for fishing). You drop in your coin and out comes a handful of live worms or crickets. They’ve designed these machines so that the insects can live happily inside them. A small internal device simulates rain, while another feeds the creatures a nutrient solution.

But insects are far from the craziest thing you’ll find in a vending machine. Umbrellas, live lobsters, potted plants, all are commonplace vending machine contents in Japan. It’s even rumoured that you can get a random girl’s pair of already worn panties out of your local vending machine.
The West has had its share of wild contents too. In America, from around 1950 till 1970, you could buy life insurance policies out of vending machines at your local airport, to cover your death should your plane crash. And in areas of Australia you can still get gemstones out of vending machines.

But perhaps the Swap-O-Matic, located somewhere in New York City, is a sign of things to come in the wide world of vending. It’s a vending machine which allows customers to swap items they no longer want. There’s a statement about needless consumption and recycling in there somewhere, between an old pair of takkies, and a second-hand ipod.

It’s a simple concept. You provide your email address (for security purposes) and then you can choose to donate, swap, or receive any item from the on-screen menu. No money is involved. New users get three credits, and with every item you donate you receive a further credit, which you can exchange for any item. Each of which are housed in a small glass drawer within the machine. None of the items have assigned values, everything in the machine simply costs one credit, regardless of its perceived or market value. Hippie much?

Personally I can’t see much of a downside to this kind of shopping. Vending machines are open 24/7, you don’t have to deal with shop assistants or other shoppers, and it’s relatively safe – there have only ever been 16 reported cases of vending machine injuries. Which is quite remarkable considering how many there are out there. Three people have been crushed and twelve hospitalised with minor injuries when machines fell over on them. And one received a black eye and a divorce, when the number of the random woman he pulled out of the machine turned out to be his wife.

So I’d happily buy my staple bread, milk and cheese this way. And while we’re about it, why not appliances, computer equipment or furniture too? Although they’d have to make the hole the product falls out of slightly bigger to fit a couch.

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