Almost as soon as the first gasoline filling 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,” the article explained.
In Minnesota, the Anthony Liquid Vending Machine Company designed its Anthony Automatic Salesman, which was extensively marketed to garage owners. The company promised a savings of $5 in overhead costs for every dollar invested in its new pumps.
“You can sell gasoline 24-hours a day and 365-days a year, without effort on your part,” the 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.”
Several other 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.
A 1915 article in National Petroleum News 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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