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12 Unusual Vending Machines

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Vending machines are ever-present in the United States, and today most of them are filled with snacks and drinks to be consumed on the go. But over the years, people have used vending machines to buy and sell some pretty unorthodox things. From machines that sell seafood to ones that deliver hot meals, here are some of the weirdest vending machines in history.

1. FULL MEALS

Berenice Abbott, NYPL Flickr // Public domain


Making its debut in Philadelphia in 1902, the Horn & Hardart company was once at the top of the restaurant food chain, serving an estimated 800,000 people a day. Borrowing a successful idea from German restaurants, the chain used nickel-operated Automat (“self-acting”) vending machines with doors that patrons had to open to reach their meals. Different food options (including pies and cakes) were kept behind different doors so meals were customizable, and hungry workers could grab a hot meal without waiting in line. The machines were also used to sell other products, like nylon stockings and bikinis. The last Automat in the United States closed in 1991, but they can still be found in places like the Netherlands and Spain.

2. HOT PIZZA

An Italian entrepreneur named Claudio Torghele decided that what the world needed was a machine that could make and cook a pizza in just a few minutes, so he developed these Let’s Pizza machines. There are four kinds of pies to choose from, and the customer can watch the process and have a hot pie in their mouth in about two-and-a-half minutes. Rumor has it that these will appear outdoors in the United States in the future, but for now you have to go to Europe to test them out. 

3. HOLY WATER

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Vending machines have been around since the 1st century, and according to Smithsonian.com, the oldest known machine dispensed holy water. Invented by Hero of Alexandria, the machine was coin-operated and worked with a lever system. Those seeking the anointed waters would insert a five-drachms coin, which would hit a metal lever attached to a string and plugged-up water reserve. A specific amount of water would pour out until the coin fell off the lever. Historians believe that the machine was invented because people were taking more holy water than they were paying for.

4. BURRITOS

In 2014, a company called The Box Brands began testing their Burrito Box machines in Los Angeles. Unlike the Let’s Pizza machine, the boxes delivered packaged burritos, and did not show the customer how they are made. Instead, the vending machines played a music video and dropped the food when it was cooked. In the video above, Zagat blogger Lesley Balla and Midtown Lunch founder Zack Brooks question whether or not the Burrito Box is just a “giant microwave,” or if there are robotic arms making the burrito from scratch. 

(Spoiler: they conclude that it’s the former, but that the burritos taste better than standard gas station offerings).

5. LIVE CRABS

Who needs sodas and snacks when you can grab a couple live crabs from a machine on your way home from work? Found in China, the machines are maintained at a temperature that keeps the crabs alive but sluggish, and the creatures are packaged in special patented containers to keep them from moving and to make them easier to handle. As of November 2010, according to the Associated Press, the owner of the machines was selling around 200 crabs per day at each of his two machines.

6. 24-HOUR POTATO SERVICE

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Chris Ware // Getty Images

At the grocery store already but can’t be bothered with a trip to the produce section? In the early 1960s, a greengrocer’s shop in Chelsea, London, introduced the world’s first vending machine for 20-lb bags of “top quality, washed, graded, & pre-packed potatoes.” The machine never gained widespread popularity, but according to French newspaper Courrier Picard, a similar machine installed in the Nouvion commune by two farmers saw great success in 2014.

7. BANANAS

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Kazuhiro Nogi // Getty Images

The words “fresh produce” are not often associated with vending machines because of the extra work needed to keep the stock from perishing, but in the summer of 2010, Dole Japan, Ltd. installed a banana vending machine at a train station in Tokyo. According to Getty Images, there are five million vending machines in Japan, so one selling fruit for around $1.50 each doesn't seem that bizarre.

8. BAGUETTES

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Pierre Andrieu // Getty Images

A little over a decade ago, baker Jean-Louis Hecht and his wife got tired of customers showing up to his bakery (which was below his home) to try and get baguettes after closing hours. After developing the idea for years, Hecht brought it to life and gained worldwide recognition for the bizarre invention in 2011. The “Pani Vending” machine works 24 hours a day, taking partially baked baguettes and finishing them in minutes while the customer waits. According to NBC News, the first machine cost Hecht $71,000, but in his first month he sold 1600 baguettes, and in July of that year his sales rose to 4500. He also won the President of the Republic's prize at the 2014 Concours Lepine in Paris.

9. CAVIAR

Hitting every price point between $5 and $500, the Beverly Hills Caviar company installed a vending machine in a Los Angeles mall to give shoppers the opportunity to dine on beluga eggs while scoping out gifts for their loved ones. The specially made machine kept the eggs cold and held around $50,000 worth of the luxury food, according to a CNN report (above). “It’s very accessible, very convenient,” owner Kelly Stern said, while a few of the shoppers interviewed said that they would never put $500 into a vending machine. 

10. BALLPOINT PENS

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Sometimes you just need a new pen fast! The novelty of being able to insert a quarter and pull a lever for a pen must have added to the success of these machines (25 cents in the mid-1950s is around $2.20 when adjusted for inflation). On eBay, these odd creations, from brands like Vendorama and Rite Master, sell for hundreds of dollars to collectors.

11. SHOELACES

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Getting something as simple as a pair of laces from a machine is already a bit weird, but building the machine in the shape of a lighthouse? The Live Auctioneers listing for this item does not reveal much about its history, and other auctions for Natural Tip, the brand of shoelaces sold in the machine, only confirm that the company was active in the 1940s, not whether it was located in a seaside town or somewhere where lighthouses were popular.

12. FRESH EGGS

As with the banana machine in Tokyo, getting fresh eggs from a machine sounds like an impossibility, if not a recipe for disaster, but it seems to work in Japan. According to the Glaum Egg Ranch in California, the first egg vending machine was made by farmer Marvin Glaum, and today customers on the Glaum farm can see an animated chicken show when they insert their money.


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science
11-Year-Old Creates a Better Way to Test for Lead in Water
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In the wake of the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, a Colorado middle schooler has invented a better way to test lead levels in water, as The Cut reports.

Gitanjali Rao, an 11-year-old seventh grader in Lone Tree, Colorado just won the 2017 Discovery Education 3M Young Scientist Challenge, taking home $25,000 for the water-quality testing device she invented, called Tethys.

Rao was inspired to create the device after watching Flint's water crisis unfold over the last few years. In 2014, after the city of Flint cut costs by switching water sources used for its tap water and failed to treat it properly, lead levels in the city's water skyrocketed. By 2015, researchers testing the water found that 40 percent of homes in the city had elevated lead levels in their water, and recommended the state declare Flint's water unsafe for drinking or cooking. In December of that year, the city declared a state of emergency. Researchers have found that the lead-poisoned water resulted in a "horrifyingly large" impact on fetal death rates as well as leading to a Legionnaires' disease outbreak that killed 12 people.

A close-up of the Tethys device

Rao's parents are engineers, and she watched them as they tried to test the lead in their own house, experiencing firsthand how complicated it could be. She spotted news of a cutting-edge technology for detecting hazardous substances on MIT's engineering department website (which she checks regularly just to see "if there's anything new," as ABC News reports) then set to work creating Tethys. The device works with carbon nanotube sensors to detect lead levels faster than other current techniques, sending the results to a smartphone app.

As one of 10 finalists for the Young Scientist Challenge, Rao spent the summer working with a 3M scientist to refine her device, then presented the prototype to a panel of judges from 3M and schools across the country.

The contamination crisis in Flint is still ongoing, and Rao's invention could have a significant impact. In March 2017, Flint officials cautioned that it could be as long as two more years until the city's tap water will be safe enough to drink without filtering. The state of Michigan now plans to replace water pipes leading to 18,000 households by 2020. Until then, residents using water filters could use a device like Tethys to make sure the water they're drinking is safe. Rao plans to put most of the $25,000 prize money back into her project with the hopes of making the device commercially available.

[h/t The Cut]

All images by Andy King, courtesy of the Discovery Education 3M Young Scientist Challenge.

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Google's AI Can Make Its Own AI Now
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Artificial intelligence is advanced enough to do some pretty complicated things: read lips, mimic sounds, analyze photographs of food, and even design beer. Unfortunately, even people who have plenty of coding knowledge might not know how to create the kind of algorithm that can perform these tasks. Google wants to bring the ability to harness artificial intelligence to more people, though, and according to WIRED, it's doing that by teaching machine-learning software to make more machine-learning software.

The project is called AutoML, and it's designed to come up with better machine-learning software than humans can. As algorithms become more important in scientific research, healthcare, and other fields outside the direct scope of robotics and math, the number of people who could benefit from using AI has outstripped the number of people who actually know how to set up a useful machine-learning program. Though computers can do a lot, according to Google, human experts are still needed to do things like preprocess the data, set parameters, and analyze the results. These are tasks that even developers may not have experience in.

The idea behind AutoML is that people who aren't hyper-specialists in the machine-learning field will be able to use AutoML to create their own machine-learning algorithms, without having to do as much legwork. It can also limit the amount of menial labor developers have to do, since the software can do the work of training the resulting neural networks, which often involves a lot of trial and error, as WIRED writes.

Aside from giving robots the ability to turn around and make new robots—somewhere, a novelist is plotting out a dystopian sci-fi story around that idea—it could make machine learning more accessible for people who don't work at Google, too. Companies and academic researchers are already trying to deploy AI to calculate calories based on food photos, find the best way to teach kids, and identify health risks in medical patients. Making it easier to create sophisticated machine-learning programs could lead to even more uses.

[h/t WIRED]

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