The templexity of weird vending machines

By Alex Mazey

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There is a time anomaly located in an industrious looking street of Chiyoda; a special ward of Tokyo whose name literally means, ‘field of a thousand generations’. This street – not far from the Kanda River that flows beneath the threshold of Mansei Bridge – has become known for its Weird Vending Machines, an oddly inconspicuous little place situated somewhere between the green glow of two 7-Elevens and a sea of other convenience stores. 

In this open all-hour’s space, which appears shadowy dark – day or night – exists an assortment of vending machines as diverse and as mismatched as the delirious products they have ultimately come to dispense. It is this cramped little spot on the corner of a city side street which also comes as a distorted message from the future – today associated with a flood of weird tourism which documents those equally weird machines known to dispense resin-encased beetles, allegedly cursed candy, and mysterious packages that – I suppose – resemble dark web mystery boxes on steroids. 

It could be argued that reading the history of vending machines is to make a close encounter with the earliest known exponents of cybernetics. To say, Hero of Alexandria, a Greek mathematician who – historians tentatively claim – lectured out of the library of Alexandria is often credited with engineering the first vending machine which expressed holy water in much the same way 7UP glistens from any commonplace soda fountain today. 

There is something interesting that can be said about religious significance as it relates to this early use of the vending machine where the weight of an inserted coin opened a valve allowing water to pass through momentarily, before the coin inevitably slipped from the mechanism, which in turn closed the valve for the next coin in-use. The operation of machines such as this at sacred sites of antiquity begs another question altogether; a querying of sorts that relates to the dispensing of holy water from such machines as becoming an integral component of the temple ritual itself. 

I claim this ritual continues today in vending machine culture, de-sited from any act of penitence or divinity but nevertheless remaining in service of that temporal deity we call capital. Capital is (demon) stably a chronos-ital possessed divinity concerned with cyclical time as made manifest in that symbolic relationship with what orthodox economics call the fiscal year. These remarks are not to be confused with some abstract, theoretical critique or even the righteous condemnation of the so-called late-stage that merges superlatively with the cybernetic singularities of technocapitalism. No – this is merely an anthropological observation that concerns the complex relationship between ritual and a society forever predicated upon actions performed according to ceremony where vending machines no longer hold careful measures of holy water given over to external deities but instead concern all manner of products offered up to the sweet-toothed and sodium enriched gods we have forged from our internal desires.

At some point in the eighteenth century, Hero’s Pneumatika manuscript – which detailed the earliest known example of the vending machine – fell into the hands of Greek scholar, Charles Burney. Whilst Burney died in 1817 – with his collection acquired by the British Museum the following year – I like to imagine a twelve-month period in which this extensive collection of manuscripts had been appraised by booksellers working throughout London. It was perhaps during this period where, very speculatively speaking, Richard Carlile first saw the Pneumatika, taking inspiration from the diagrams and descriptions he must have seen to create a vending machine from which he used to dispense copies of Thomas Paines’s The Age of Reason, a book once banned by the British government. 

It seems deeply ironic for this machine – initially used to sell sacrificial water in temples – to have entered an antithetical mode in which Hero’s invention would later facilitate the dissemination of enlightenment values. Nevertheless, from the Greek use of the drachma to the British use of pounds, shillings and pence, coin-based currency as a medium of exchange continued to play the most consistent role in the development of vending machines throughout Europe and the rest of the world.   

When it comes to the history of vending machines, the middling years of the nineteenth century were defined in part by patent acquisitions concerning various designs. Whilst this included Simeon Deham’s postage stamp machine in 1857, the emergence of vending machine culture in the United States likely began with the issuing of that first patent to W.H Fruen and – perhaps more significantly – the creation of Thomas Adam’s hugely popular Tutti-Frutti machine. 

It was possibly the Adams Gum Company that first mass-monetised the pseudo-banality of transient space, understanding the profit potential of the fast-growing nonplaces of supermodernity. To say, at some point in the history of architecture, these nonplaces – defined by French anthropologist, Marc Augé – were newly emergent territories designed to be psychologically colonised by what Mark Fisher called ‘semiotic pollution’ in an interview with Tim Burrows in 2012. These architecturally generated seamless liminalities became untapped territories in the growing landscape of an industrial America increasingly concerned with automation; the nonplace existing as an untapped resource until those Tutti-Frutti machines arrived as early as 1888 on rail platforms in New York City. 

Imagine abstractly fruity flavoured territories of rubbery synthetics made miscible with the baseline mammalian enjoyment of mastication in the product we call chewing gum. If the history of capitalism can be similarly read as a history of territories turned towards profit, then ours is an intermediate age where terrestrially-positioned finite territories are undergoing a critically-required reterritorialization into an astral space whereby the lifeworld of a hyperreal frontier is born again in the open sky of an infinite virtual. 

It is perhaps platitudinal to mention the relationship between the front-end products a society ultimately consumes and the back-end structure of the society produced, nevertheless those Tutti-Frutti machines proved immensely popular, dispensing a colourful confectionery imbued with a taste that exuberated the same aura of transience as the nonplace it reflected. 

In an attempt to emulate the successes of the Adams Gum Company, the early twentieth-century vending machine industry was dominated by cigarettes and candy. Back-end manufacturers of machines like The Doehler Die Casting Company were aided by an emerging industry of front-end operators presumably responsible for installation, maintenance and understanding the complex relationship between the machine, the demographics they served, and the commercial spaces they ultimately came to occupy. Not wanting to rest on the laurels of those colonial industries tied to the sale of tobacco and sugar, the chairman of the Automatic Canteen Company, Nathaniel Leverone – later a Horatio Alger Award Recipient – came to understand the two defining characteristics of a vending machine market pointing towards revolutionised lucrativities based on both the diversification of consumer choice and the fast-accelerating technologies of automation. 

It was likely the shifting economies in the aftermath of World War II where consumption began to supersede the forces of production in a technocapitalism increasing concerned with innovation and image, a reality only exacerbated by America’s propaganda war with Russia. It is not coincidental that companies like Coca-Cola and Pepsi were early adopters of an automation pioneered by companies like Automatic Canteen whose machines, it is said, were now serving five million consumers on a daily basis. To say, it also was in 1937 – the same year that Antonio Gramsci coined the word, ‘Fordism’ – where the Vendorlator Manufacturing Company was born as a competitor in a lucrative vending machine market that ultimately paved the way for those Coca-Cola machines that still serve as seductive pollution in the nonplaces of supermordenity today.

In many ways, vending machines still emblemise an eucharistic sacrament whereby those desired products once displayed behind glass (and now interactive screens) are taken into our bodies in an effort to ward off against the evils of lived monotony inherent to working conditions increasingly defined by periods of recurring travel; the procession of bodies through airports and train stations appearing today as collective ritual on a global scale.

From the earliest incarnations found in the Pneumatika, to those cutesy toys today sold as Gashapon, to Chiyoda City’s Weird Vending Machines, the complex relationship between technology, consumption, and aesthetic design, has always accompanied a vending machine culture that points towards an anthropologically positioned cybernetic miscibility exacerbated by the weird and eerie environments of supermodernity. As consequence, vending machines have always been generatively prognostic, offering prophecies by way of their baked-in cybernetic complexity. In other words then, vending machines are like windows – not only to the growing abstractivity of products held inside– but to a technosocial templexity where those machines that still haunt the nonplace long-ago formed a pact of allegiance with facial recognition technologies, AI intelligences, and cashless systems, having always operated as time-machines whose dials seem forever turned towards the hyperstitional capacities of technocapitalism. 

In a heretically reductive formulation, such machines always appear as a microcosm of the urban spectacles they come to delineate – and as Nick Land writes in Templexity: Disordered Loops through Shanghai Time, ‘The City of the Future entangles urban spectacle inseparably with prophecy. One sees, now, what is yet to come.’ If it is true that time is also cylindrical – and everything is destined to reappear in simulation, as Baudrillard once theorised – then the pilgrimatic fate of the vending machine towards the future foretells of an eternal interrelation with a ceremony where such objects go unnoticed as temporal anomalies through aesthetic-neutrality-camouflage seeded into present-day architectures; if this capture is to carry us forward in simulation then one only has to imagine the dark purpose of these machines in as little as one hundred years’ time.