When I first read the headline, I thought “That sounds like an automat. I had no idea that Thomas Edison invented the automat!” But then I did some research and it turns out that Edison didn’t invent the automat. The first automat in the US had been in business for eight years before this article came out (it was Horn & Hardart in Philadelphia). The shop Edison describes in this article turns out to be slightly different than an automat, and still interesting.
In an automat, customers get food without interacting with the staff. In Edison’s planned shop, there is no staff. There’s just one person running the clockwork machinery that handles the real work. He extends the concept from a diner to a grocery, suggesting that it could be implemented and maintained very inexpensively.
“In the automatic shop of the future there will be no shopkeepers, no clerks, no boy to wrap up packages. On entering the shop, the intending purchaser will see no one, unless it be some other purchaser. There will be no counters, no scales, no shelves lined with goods, no showcases.
“In the walls of the shop there will be dozens and dozens of little openings. Above every opening there will be a small sign. This sign will tell in a half dozen different languages what particular article that particular opening will deliver.
“Suppose a patron wants beans. He will go to the series of openings that represent the vegetable department. He will look for the sign bearing the legend ‘Beans.’ He drops a nickel in the slot and a neatly tied package containing 5 cents worth of beans will drop through the opening…
“Only one man will be needed to tend this store. All that he will have to do is keep the bins filled and the machinery oiled, and all the rest will be done automatically. He and his machines will be doing the work that in a present-day grocery shop it requires fifty men to do.”
Edison is so excited about this idea that he even offers to do the engineering at no charge for anyone who wants to start such a business. And if nobody takes him up on this idea, then gosh darnit he’s just going to have to do it himself, just as soon as he finishes up some other ideas he’s working on, like a cheap house that can be built in less than a week.
“Then I’ll take up this automatic store,” he says. “I’ll build one in the tenement district of New York and I’ll call it The Samaritan Market. It will be for the poor man, selling goods in five-cent lots. This store will prove the feasibility of the scheme. How general these automatic stores will then become, it would be difficult to prophecy. But so far as an Automatic Age is concerned, I have no hesitancy in saying that it’s coming.”
Bonus quote: “I believe that the day is coming when it will only be necessary to heat a little water in order to prepare a meal.” I think he just predicted cup noodles.
EDISON PLANS AN AUTOMATIC CLERKLESS SHOP: There Will Be No Waiting for Change, No Impolite Helpers, No Counters, but Customers Will Get What They Want on the Slot Machine Plan (PDF)
From May 15, 1910