One characteristic of entrepreneurial businesses is that they almost always are run by people who execute efficiently in the present while thinking about the future. The market does not reward activity aimed at recording and analyzing the past, and so few people take the time to do it.
That is as it should be. One symptom of an industry in terminal decline is a tendency to relive the triumphs of its golden age. Enterprises that are moving forward, grappling successfully with emerging challenges, don’t have the time to do that. While the pioneers of our diverse but related route service industries do reminisce about the good old days, and many of them have memorabilia on display in their offices, there has been no coherent industry effort to conserve the vending, music and games, and office refreshment service legacy.
There are some valuable repositories. Canteen Vending (Charlotte, NC) shared some of its extensive collection of machines, uniforms, product packages and signage with visitors to a recent National Automatic Merchandising Association Expo. Rowe International (Grand Rapids, MI) has preserved a great many of the jukeboxes that it and its predecessor company, Automatic Musical Instruments, produced in the postwar years (see story on Page 88 of this issue). Don Greene of D&S Vending (Cleveland) has amassed an array of vending equipment from the formative era of the full-line vending industry. We know of several others, and we’re sure there are more.
Many noteworthy collections were dispersed or simply thrown away when the company that maintained them changed ownership. A few industry observers always lament this, but we don’t think the new owners can be faulted. There is no economic incentive to maintain a private museum, which takes up valuable space and requires a certain amount of upkeep. There can be an economic incentive for selling off the contents to collectors. It can be argued plausibly that, if one has no interest in the history of technology, allowing collectors to purchase antique equipment is the responsible thing to do. Those collectors can be expected to take good care of it, and most are very willing to talk about their prize finds and share the results of their research.
Relatively recent industrial history can be extremely difficult to document, and not only in our industries. Some very large and well-established organizations have reached the end of their corporate life cycles and expired, leaving surprisingly little trace. Collectors of all sorts of things, cameras and automobiles and airplanes as well as arcade games, jukeboxes and vending equipment, spend a great deal of time trying to find instruction manuals, parts lists, service manuals and production records. The Internet has become an extraordinarily valuable resource for these people, because it is a medium through which enthusiasts can post their findings and communicate with one another.
Still, we think that our industries have reached a point at which some serious effort should be made to persuade a respected museum, perhaps the Smithsonian Institution or Chicago’s Museum of Science & Industry, to establish a permanent display of vending, music and amusement equipment. While no one would argue that this technology has had the same impact on civilization as the airplane, that impact has been far from negligible. With some stretch of the imagination, one can envision a world without vending machines to meet the food and beverage needs of people at work or at study; but that world would be very different from the one we live in.
We also think that such an exhibit would strengthen and accelerate the ongoing process of enhancing public perception of the coin machine business as a long-time consistent innovator in retail automation, and might encourage academic inquiry into the intriguing relationships among technology, economics and lifestyle.
And all the segments of our industries would benefit from the ability to review their stages of development, the things that worked and the things that didn’t, the apparently small changes in concept that turned niche items into mainstream necessities.
This is not something that many people are going to lose sleep over, but we think it would be well worth while to start exploring the feasibility of rendering our historical record more durable.