From sci-fi to reality: A history of the automated kitchen

From the 19th century “automat” to 3D printed pizza of today, we’ve always been fascinated by automated food delivery

Automated food delivery systems are a staple of retrofuturism. They show up as window dressing in anything from the softest of sci-fi — the Jetsons’ wall-sized breakfast machine [YouTube video] features an array of buttons like “bacon” and “cereal” — to the hardest, as in Larry Niven's Known Space, where auto-kitchens recycle vegetation into edible bricks.

Yet the reason the automated kitchen has enjoyed such a sustained existence in fiction is almost entirely down to its equally impressive real-life history. After all, eating is a universal need, so humanity has had a long time to consider automating it. But while we’ve turned other automated necessities, like travel, into massive industries, the private automated kitchen hasn’t caught on. So, what does history tell us and what might the future still bring?

 

The “automat” has offered coin-operated meal delivery since 1897

The term “automat” — adapted from the Greek term automatos or “self-acting” — refers to any restaurant in which food and drinks are delivered by machine. The first one opened in Berlin, Germany, in 1897, under the auspices of engineer/entrepreneur Max Sielaff. A sweeping array of wall units dispensed soup, sandwiches and drink from coin-operated spigots. The Wizard-of-Oz-style secret: Workers behind the wall units were constantly restocking the tureens and sandwich canisters.

[image_library_tag 7e72aa7d-807e-4a66-931f-c88705efe523 580x358 alt="stollwerckautomatenrestaurant1896" title="stollwerckautomatenrestaurant1896" width="580" height="358"class="center "]

Automated restaurants soon sprung up in Spain and the Netherlands, and the UK’s Cambrian Coast Express even introduced automat buffet cars. The automat reached the US in 1902, in Philadelphia. By 1933, New York City alone saw 40 automats citywide.

Sci-fi literature mirrored the automat: 1912’s Princess of Mars depicted John Carter of Mars’ discovery that Mars restaurants push meals up through openings in the tables themselves. These “auto-magic” tables would even appear in a real-life hotel in 1931 Massachusetts, which installed dumbwaiters directly into their tables. Yet the automat didn’t last.

The answer behind the automated kitchen's seemingly shocking failure as an industry is not that we’ve failed to turn it into a business. It’s that we’ve succeeded at driving it out of business. Few of the coin-operated food windows so popular in the 1930s could handle any payment more complicated than nickels and quarters (which even had be inserted in order), so over-the-counter fast food delivered a quicker and less complicated meal. Inflation also impacted the industry, as current technology could handle coins but not bills.

By the 1970s, the automat was obsolete, many of them converted into Burger Kings as a final indignity. Part of the blame fell on computerization, the true automation of the 20th century. The mechanical automats had always demanded attention behind the scenes, making them a far cry from true automation. Even a 2000s NYC automat revival, “BAMN,”closed in 2009 after two and half years. But if slow, low-functioning technology was the constraining factor, perhaps the automat can make an AI-powered return in the 2030s. At least, that seems more likely than the return of the 1950s’ automated dream.

The Frigidaire kitchen of the future captured 1950s retrofuturism, if not reality

The retrofuture is a bizarre world of futuristic inventions paired with cigarettes, sexism, and the continued existence of Pan Am. Appliance company Frigidaire’s contribution to the genre included an entire kitchen designed to be truly automated.

Frigidaire’s decision to align itself with the ‘50s futurism trend was a natural one. The company brand was already centered on the latest in modern appliances: Its name connotes the electric self-contained refrigerator that the company pioneered during its inception in 1918, and may even be the source of the slang term “fridge”. Frigidaire’s much-hyped prototype for the electric self-contained kitchen, however, was absurdly ambitious, as a scene in a 1956 promotional film from General Motors proves.