Monday, May 7, 2018

V is for Vending Machine: Zelazny A to Z

When he reached the Circle of the Fountain, the prince halted. Several dozen people stood in a shifting line before the Temple of Varuna, most stern and august of all the deities. These people were not preparing to enter the Temple, but rather were engaged in some occupation that required waiting and taking turns. He heard the rattling of coins and he wandered nearer.

It was a machine, gleaming and metallic, before which they moved.

A man inserted a coin into the mouth of a steel tiger. The machine began to purr. He pressed buttons cast in the likenesses of animals and demons. There came then a flashing of lights along the lengths of the Nagas, the two holy serpents who twisted about the transparent face of the machine.

He edged closer.

The man drew down upon the lever that grew from the side of the machine cast in the likeness of the tail of a fish.

A holy blue light filled the interior of the machine; the serpents pulsed redly; and there, in the midst of the light and a soft music that had begun to play, a prayer wheel swung into view and began spinning at a furious pace.

The man wore a beatific expression. After several minutes, the machine shut itself off. He inserted another coin and pulled the lever once more, causing several of those nearer to the end of the line to grumble audibly, remarking to the effect that that was his seventh coin, it was a warm day, there were other people waiting to get some praying done and why did he not go inside and render such a large donation directly to the priests? Someone replied that the little man obviously had much atoning to do. There then began some speculation as to the possible nature of his sins. This was accompanied by considerable laughter.

I learned about Hero of Alexandria early last month. He was a scientist in the first century AD.  From Wikipedia: The first vending machine was also one of his constructions; when a coin was introduced via a slot on the top of the machine, a set amount of holy water was dispensed. This was included in his list of inventions in his book Mechanics and Optics. When the coin was deposited, it fell upon a pan attached to a lever. The lever opened up a valve which let some water flow out. The pan continued to tilt with the weight of the coin until it fell off, at which point a counter-weight would snap the lever back up and turn off the valve

Also, I never realized until reading the story for this post, but Sam seems to have coined the phrase “pray-o-mat”.

“Tell me, I saw a machine this morning which I think may best be described as a pray-o-mat, are they very common?"

It’s unlikely the gods would employ such a blasphemous name for the device. (At least, not to outsiders. I could absolutely believe they would call it a pray-o-mat internally.)

It would seem he used in conversation and it caught on after his departure. Of course, it’s possible that the phrase could have arisen independently from several sources, but since it seems to be derived from automat and only Sam or another of the First would have that knowledge, I’m leaning towards it being a phrase of Sam’s invention.

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