Retrotechtacular: Automatic For The People

Throughout their long history, American Machine and Foundry (AMF) have made forays into many areas of automation. And as the American cultural landscape of the 1950s and ’60s shifted toward fast, cheap, and convenient foodstuffs available for consumption inside of spacious, finned automobiles, AMF was there with AMFare, an (almost) completely automated system for taking orders, preparing food, and calculating bills.

AMF named the system “ORBIS” after its two main functions, ordering and billing. But ORBIS was not completely autonomous. A human operator received orders from a table-side telephones inside the restaurant and intercoms used by drive-in customers, and entered them on an enormous console. Orders were routed to several machines to prepare the food, cook it, and package it in various ways. We witness the odyssey of the burger in complete detail, from punching out perfect patties to their final, plastic-wrapped form.

Surprisingly, the AMFare selection wasn’t limited to delicious burgers, fries, and milkshakes. It could crank out sixteen different menu items, and do so pretty quickly. In the space of one hour, AMFare could produce more than 400 burgers, over 350 orders of fries, or about 700 milkshakes. Even so, collating the orders required human intervention. We imagine that the awful task of cleaning all that expensive Rube Goldberg-esque machinery did, too.

Thanks for the tip, [Gregg]!

Photo credit (both): Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Gift of Barbara Robinson

Retrotechtacular is a weekly column featuring hacks, technology, and kitsch from ages of yore. Help keep it fresh by sending in your ideas for future installments.

26 thoughts on “Retrotechtacular: Automatic For The People

      1. Wait, are you invoking the “he who smelled it dealt it” theory of finding racists?

        The white woman gets to speak to the public. The black guy is sweating in the back. Are you saying…

        …you know what? This is ruining retro day. Thanks.

        1. That’s not racist at all. Man, I hate America. You guys cry so hard about racism and yet you STILL DON’T vote gay marriage in. Says a lot about the bunch of you hypocrites.

      1. And let us not forget the wonderful thing that happened with Harly-Davidson when under AMF… I it weren’t for That period, there might never have been the incentive to build a reliable bike and actually warrant it…

      1. Harley Davidson should make chopped bowling lane machines with lots of cool spikey chrome bits and plenty of glowing lights. They would put AMF out of business & teach ’em a lesson

  1. What kind of technology was used in the Orbis console? There are switches and Nixies on the operator side and presumably relays to control the various burger-flipping gizmos. But as to the brains of the console — given the timeframe I anticipate lots of relays and other electromechanical technology like in tabulating equipment. Would be nice to see that stuff in operation.

  2. One document excerpt (just about everything I found on this is behind paywalls) noted that AMF recommended AMFare for locations bringing in at least $120,000 a year. Going by usinflationcalculator.com that’s $915,867.10 in 2015 money.

    Today’s technology could eliminate the ORBIS console and operator with touch screens by the cars and tables. Tools like ABB robots with flexpickers could do the job of the order assembler. There wouldn’t be any need to pre-load metal trays with the shrimp, chicken etc. They’d dispense from bulk bins like the ground beef and fries – either by weight or piece count. Could even have segway style robot carhops carry trays to the drive up customers.

    Just think of it, a fast food joint where if the order is wrong it’s your fault for not poking the right spots on the screen and verifying before tapping accept – instead of someone in the back not reading their order display.

    1. At least two. The first at the Fiesta Drive-In in Levittown, Long Island and the one in that article and in the video was at Jay’s Drive-in Restaurant in Brooklyn Center, a suburb of Minneapolis, MN.

      I wonder if any others were installed?

  3. Note the panel reset button just above the intercom button. Oops! Reorder everyone.
    There must have been a lot of stepper relays in the “memory”, the lights in decimal order are readouts. I wonder how the buffer of burgers is dealt with at closing time-cleaning time or slack time.
    I remember the distinctive intercom and box-trays from my childhood. No Styrofoam! Probably in Indianapolis, more than once. Or else it was on the trip we took 50 years ago at this time, Route 66 all the way to LA.

  4. Ahh the future of the past where all that white people have shiny new cars. And the only black guy around has to where a big puffy hat, to keep him away from our women

    1. At least blacks can get married in America now. Hypocritical of you all to cry so much about the “racism” in the video when America still does not have gay marriage.

      For shame.

      1. Really we need to take a perfectly snarky social commentary and try to use it to advance your own simplistic agenda. Step off. And as a matter of fact. Who cares! We will never be truly free until weed is finally legal. In this great nation. God save the Queens!

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