Years Ago, Street Lights Sold Soup, Texted The Cops
Before electric street lamps, we had gas lamps, which functioned similarly but contained a lot more fire. In the 1890s, a London guy named H.M. Robinson realized this was a fine heat source being wasted. These lamps should be selling their heat to passing folk, in liquid form.
And so he unveiled the Pluto Lamp. The Pluto Lamp had a water supply and used the streetlight's heat to dispense hot water when you inserted a coin. His new vending machine quickly got more advanced, selling hot coffee and hot tea as well. It even dispensed hot soup, and if your mouth isn't watering at the thought of drinking warm beef broth directly out of a public street pipe, well, that's because you're not a 19th-century Londoner.
Pluto Lamps could also connect you with the nearest police station. Though England had had a telephone exchange for almost 20 years by this point, the Pluto Lamp used a telegraph, not a telephone. But if you're picturing terrified pedestrians struggling to remember the Morse code for "the Ripper approaches! help!" think again.
The lamp instead used what was known as an ABC telegraph transmitter. This device let you pick out letters by pressing buttons and then turning a dial. People could normally type about 15 words per minute using this dial. That's slower than texting today, but a typical typing speed on even a full keyboard is only two or three times faster than that.
The Pluto Lamp also sold cigarettes and postcards. It should have made a lot of money. And yet it quickly died out, and one reason might have been that H.M. Robinson didn't put enough work into preventing fraud. The machine accepted coins, but all you had to do was push in a piece of tin instead, and you could fool it into giving you whatever you wanted.
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Vending machines have been around a while. See also:
Top image: Islington Local History Centre