Old white man of the day


Robert James Dickie invented, patented and marketed the world?s first stamp vending machine. His machines were in use for 50 years, 18,000 were used in Britain, with countless thousands around the world. The machine that won star honours at the 1909 Pacific Expo in Seattle came from a New Zealander with a single idea.?Robert James Dickie was born in London on December 30, 1876. Twelve years later, he immigrated with his family to Wellington, New Zealand. He joined the staff of the Chief Post Office at Customs Street in 1891, and went to work in the foreign mail department.

Obsession with the Machine

It was the policy of the Post Office at the time to shift staff around the various departments to give them a wider knowledge of the organisation. While Dickie was working at the front desk selling stamps, it occurred to him that tearing stamps from a large sheet by hand was a waste of time, especially since most of the stamps sold were for the same value. A machine, he thought, could do this job just as well as a person. The idea was further entrenched when Dickie saw his first moving picture images. A newspaper feature, published at Dickie?s retirement from the Post Office in 1931, colourfully told of Dickie?s inspiration:

?? a film in slow motion, away back in the days when movies dazzled a man and left him bewildered, showed a Chinese in changing motions. If photographs could be controlled in that way, thought Dickie, why not stamps??

The idea ticked over in his mind, but there were no quick, or easily definable, solutions. It took 13 years before he started making plans for a prototype. He had become fixated with the idea of the machine. In an unpublished 1948 autobiography he wrote:

?For some months, the idea of a machine to sell postage stamps (by means of a coin in the slot) became an obsession with me. I kept banishing the idea from coming into being, but at last the urge would not let me sleep, and for peace of mind started working on the making of the model.?

Dickie sought the assistance of Wellington photographer and draughtsman JH Brown who made accurate drawings from Dickie?s ideas. Later they enlisted engineer W Andrews to build the first model. Dickie, Brown and Andrews were the first patentees of the vending machine.

Mr R J Dickie, Mr JH Brown and Mr W Andrews with the first stamp vending machine From Dominion May 14 1960

The First Model

The new machine caused a stir when it was first seen. The February 28 edition of The Advocate newspaper gave a brief description of Dickie?s invention:

?The mechanism is simplicity itself, a fluted sprocket wheel with weights attached being set in motion by the descending coin, so as to make a single stamp project from a second slot. The action of the front slot is such that immediately it is opened it closes the second slot. The whole mechanism is only 9 inches by 4 inches in extent and the instrument may be charged to carry from one to one hundred pounds worth of coins.?

Initially, the biggest hurdle Dickie, Brown and Andrews had to face was how to get stamps in a long roll of singles rather than in sheets. Dickie lobbied the Government printers to print stamps in a roll but they refused on the basis of cost. He solved the problem by buying sheets of stamps himself, cutting them into strips and building a spool mechanism that, in the inventor?s own words was, ?pretty crude?, but it worked.

In June 1905 the machine was ready, Dickie triumphantly demonstrated his invention to the Post Office authorities. A feature in the Dominion from 1960 quoted their response to his invention:

?The idea?s all right?, they admitted reluctantly, ?but you?ve forgotten one thing. This machine, if placed outside for sale of stamps after hours, as you suggest, would contain quite a lot of money. The Post Office cannot risk public funds being left outside like that.?

According to the newspaper, Dickie returned home that evening ?crestfallen?, but by the next day he had thought of a solution. He bought the stamps himself and took the money when the box was cleared. RJ Dickie, a true entrepreneur from the edge, was born.

Pennies collected from Christchurch machine over a weekend Courtesy of Eric Adank

This arrangement naturally suited the Post Office, and in June 1905 an unknown Wellingtonian was the first person in the world to buy a stamp from an automatic vending machine. The machine was popular and, on the whole, successful, although it was withdrawn after two weeks because some members of the public tried to ?cheat? the machine by using foreign coins, damaged coins, lead discs and other foreign objects, thus damaging the mechanism. It was fixed with some minor adjustments by Dickie and by July was once again outside the Post Office. During its first fortnight of use, it had sold 3,901 one-penny stamps.?End of quote: