It is fair to say that many technologies have been influenced by human vices. What you may not realize is that vending machines saw their dawn in this way, the first vending machine was created to serve booze. Specifically, it was created to serve gin, the tipple of choice of the early 18th century. it was created as a hack to get around a law that made it harder to sell alcoholic drinks. It was the first ever vending machine: the Puss and Mew.
England in the early 18th century was a drunken place. Because there were few reliable safe sources of water, pretty much everyone drank alcoholic drinks — too much might make you sick but not in the way that tends to kill you. Even children drank Small Beer, the weakest batch made at the end of the brewing process.
However, some parts of society at the time were concerned about the rise in popularity of hard spirits such as gin. Groups like the Society for the Reformation of Manners preached that hard liquor was destroying the lives of the working class. To restrict the sale of gin, the Gin Act was passed by parliament in the United Kingdom in 1736. This required that anyone selling small amounts of gin needed a license, which cost £50 (over£7,000/$9,000 in today’s value). Paid informers were enlisted to catch those who broke the law. They would buy illegal gin, report it to the police, and pocket the fine that the seller paid.
Hacking Liquor Laws
To get around this, an enterprising gin slinger by the name of Captain Dudley Bradstreet came up with a hack to sell gin: the Puss and Mew, also known as Bradstreet’s Cat.
Bradstreet was a soldier and spy who had fallen on hard times. He carefully read the Gin Act, and realized that it did not give the police the authority to enter a building. Instead, they had to rely on informers to catch a gin seller. So, he persuaded a lawyer friend to rent a house and mounted a statue of a cat on an outside wall. A would-be drinker would walk up to the statue and ask ”Puss, do you have any gin?” The statue would meow, and a small drawer would open in its mouth. The drinker would insert coins and the drawer would close. Next, gin would flow out of a pipe in the cat’s paw.
It worked not because of a mechanism, but because Bradstreet was behind the cat, taking the money and pouring the gin down the pipe. Because he was hidden inside the house, an informer could not tell the police who had sold them the gin. And the police had no authority to enter the house and catch him, as the renter was a lawyer who refused to reveal the name of the occupant, claiming it was part of an ongoing court case.
It worked like a charm. As Bradstreet himself put it in his boastful memoir, The Life and Uncommon Adventures of Captain Dudley Bradstreet:
The Mob being very noisy and clamorous for want of their beloved Liquor…it soon occurred to me to venture upon that Trade. I bought the Act, and read it over several times, and found no Authority by it to break ones Doors, and that the Informer must know the Name of the Person who rented the house it was sold in. To evade this, I got an Acquaintance to take a House in Blue Anchor Alley…and purchased in Moorfields the Sign of a Cat, and had it nailed to a Street Window. I then caused a Leaden Pipe… to be placed under the Paw of the Cat…When the Liquor was properly disposed, I got a Person to inform a few of the Mob that Gin would be sold by the Cat at my Window the Next Day, provided they put money in its mouth… I heard the Chink of Money, and a comfortable voice say, “Puss, give me two Pennyworth of Gin.” I instantly put my mouth to the tube, and bid them receive it from the Pipe under her Paw…. from all parts of London People used to resort to me in such Numbers, that my neighbors could scarely get in or out of their Houses. After that manner I went on for a Month, in which time I cleared upwards of two and twenty Pounds
Like Mushrooms, Good Ideas Pop Up Everywhere
Bradstreet was the first to use this legal hack, but others quickly figured it out, and similar sellers were soon appearing all over London. Despite the Gin Act, the amount of gin consumed across London increased, and subsequent changes in the law made it easier to get a license to sell gin. By 1750, there were about 29 thousand licensed gin sellers across England, and more who were still selling illegally.
Although the Puss and Mew has little in common with modern vending machines, it is the first device of its kind. And it is worth noting that they came about because of the thirst of the working class of London for booze, and one mans inventive approach to retailing.
Bradstreet himself gave up the scheme once it was no longer profitable, and moved on to other schemes. In 1745, he became a government spy in the camp of the Jacobite rebellion and convinced them that a fake army was ahead. This persuaded the Scottish army to turn back before attacking Northampton, effectively ending the rebellion.
The original location of the Puss and Mew no longer exists: Blue Anchor Alley was destroyed in the 1960’s and replaced by a nasty-looking tower block. The original sign is also no longer around, but the Beefeater distillery in London does have a replica Puss and Mew that can be viewed on their tour. Alas, it no longer serves gin.