Vending machines have become a fixture in American culture. You can find them on public streets, in offices, in shopping malls and outside just about every other form of business or gathering place. The machines accept either coins or paper money and dispense a wide variety of products, from soda to snack foods and even toys. The vending machine industry has a long and storied history.


The first vending machines were in ancient Greece. Hero of Alexandria, an engineer and mathematician, invented them in 215 B.C. They were placed in temples in Egypt, which Greece ruled at the time, and accepted coins in exchange for holy water. The first modern vending machines for public use sold postcards and appeared in London during the 1880s. The Thomas Adams Gum company brought the technology to New York City in 1888 and used it to sell gum at subway platforms. Gumball vending machines followed in 1907. Cigarette machines arrived in 1926, and soda can vending machines appeared in 1965.


The United States has more than 8,000 vending companies, according to the National Automatic Merchandising Association, a trade organization. People buy more than 5 billion sodas and 8 million snacks or confections from vending machines each year. Annual sales are estimated to be between $19 billion and $29 billion.


The vending machine industry classifies the machines into seven main groups, including 4 C's, short for coffee, cup soda, candy and cigarettes. The other categories are Full Line, including hot, frozen and refrigerated food and can sodas; Specialty; OCS, or office coffee service; Bulk, including candy, gum and novelties; Music-Game; and Street.


Entrepreneurs are often attracted to the vending machine business. The initial investment is relatively small, and it offers the freedom of being your own boss. The machines never take a day off and are always generating income. You don't have to do any personal selling, and it’s a cash business, eliminating the problem of bad checks or credit risks. The products are nationally known brands that require no additional advertising.


In 1988, the Journal of the American Medical Association reported that three people had died and that 12 had been injured after rocking soda machines. The machines tipped over and fell on them.