“Drop the coin in the slot…Mr. Robot delivers the correct amount of gasoline.”
Almost as soon as the first gas stations appeared, inventors began experimenting with ways to make user-friendly pumps for consumers. The revenue possibilities of self-service gasoline pumps prompted a number of innovators to develop coin-operated systems in the early 20th Century.
Scientific American featured a “Gasoline Slot Machine” in its October 1913 issue. The article looked at the mechanics of the device, which took its cue “from the fortunes that have resulted from the harvest of pennies dropped into chewing gum slot machines.”
But a coin-operated pump had risks, the publication noted. “On the other hand, it is evident that a vending machine liable to hold fifty or a hundred half-dollars would be a magnet for thieves.”
In Minnesota, the Anthony Liquid Vending Machine Company designed its “Anthony Automatic Salesman,” which the company extensively marketed to garage owners. The owners were promised a savings of $5 in overhead costs for every dollar invested in the automatic, coin-operated pumps.
The “Starky” Pump
William Henry Fruen received the first U.S. patent for a coin operated liquid dispensing apparatus (patent no. 309,219) in 1884, according to Canadian historian K.J. Zeoli. The inventor from Minneapolis, Minnesota, patented a “Automatic Liquid-Drawing Device.”
Although coin-operated pumps at service stations remained rare, an October 18, 1913, article in Popular Mechanics featured “a gasoline slot machine.” The automatic pump did not require an attendant, because motorists could insert a half dollar coin into a slot and turn a crank, noted Zeoli at Vintage Gas Pump & Oil History.
One of the better known coin-operated pump manufacturers originated with the Starkey Oil and Gas Company of Fort Collins, Colorado. Lewis P. Starkey, who first filed an application in October1920, received his U.S. patent on November 29, 1927 (patent no. 1650882).
According to Zeoli, the L.P. Starkey Pump Company, which was later sold to Gas-O-Mat Inc. of Denver, produced two models of coin-operated pumps from 1925 to 1926.
“Starkey and his wife ran a service station in Fort Collins. Starkey was constantly being awakened during the night by tourists who wanted gasoline. His wife actually came up with the idea of Starkey making a gas pump that would dispense gas without Starkey having to get out of bed and service the tourist. This gave Starkey the idea for the coin operated pump.”
“Unfortunately, Starkey allowed his patent to expire on one of the key components in his pumps,” Zeoli reported. The component, a “silent mercury switch” that prevented electrical circuits sparks, “went on to be used by thousands in the construction business.”
Meanwhile, gasoline filling stations with attendants continued to expand nationwide following Gulf Oil’s example in Pittsburgh (see First Gas Pump and Service Station).
In addition to Starkey, several companies experimented with coin-operated gasoline dispensing, and some of their “gas pump slot machines” survive today in museums.
But what seemed like a good idea then lacked the technology to make it work. Commercial names like Beacon, Gas-O-Mat, and others disappeared in a flurry of patents that could not overcome the challenges of coin-operated pumps.
“You can sell gasoline 24-hours a day and 365-days a year, without effort on your part,” one company proclaimed, adding that paying was a simple process for consumers. “Drop the coin in the slot — a quarter, half-dollar, or a silver dollar, and Mr. Robot delivers the correct amount of gasoline.”
An article in National Petroleum News in 1915 reported a key drawback of unattended, coin-operated pumps. “One gasoline vending outfit tried out recently in a middle western city returned about $2 in real currency and $37 in lead slugs, buttons and counterfeit coins for its first 500 gallons of gasoline.”
Nonetheless, as a system for numbered highways was established, and U.S. 66 from Chicago to Los Angeles approved in 1926 (learn more in America On the Move), some coin-operated machines survived into the 1930s.
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Citation Information – Article Title: “Coin Operated Gas Pumps.” Authors: B.A. Wells and K.L. Wells. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: https://aoghs.org/technology/coin-operated-gasoline-pumps. Last Updated: May 4, 2022. Original Published Date: July 11, 2018.