The rustic town of Lerna (Population 286) in east-central Illinois has two unusual claims-to-fame: the graves of Abraham Lincoln’s father and stepmother, and the World’s Fastest Pop Machine.

That’s right. The World’s Fastest Pop Machine.

Although this “fastest” title is informal, skepticism would cease if you saw it firsthand. The sliver of time between pressing the plastic selection button and the appearance of your product choice could be measured in milliseconds. Actually, it IS measured in milliseconds: according to one user, it dispenses the can in 1.47 milliseconds. Folks, that’s faster than a jab from Muhammed Ali in his prime (1.90 milliseconds).

For such a prestigious title, the pop machine is unassuming. No slick, LED-illuminated graphics. No blinking credit card reader or bill acceptor. Just two words—COLD DRINKS—lit by a single, stubby fluorescent tube. Faux wood grain peeling at the edges. Clear plastic on the drink selections yellowed with dirt and age, and stainless steel accents flaked with scratches and rust.

But the World’s Fastest Pop Machine of Lerna-Illinois is so, very, very fast.

For anyone interested in a road trip…

Opinions on this miracle machine’s speediness range from souped-up servos to the supernatural. A former owner of the machine insists vintage microswitches tucked away in the guts of the machine give it unusual speed. Another theory contends it has nothing to do with the engineering at all. This half-decade old machine KNOWS your pop selection before you even make it—even before you pull the change out of your pocket, it has your can cold and ready. It’s a miracle machine!

I am sorry to be a bummer, but it is not.

The author of this article (me) spent three years in the vending business. I filled and serviced machines in five Indiana counties on two lengthy routes. The job wasn’t bad. Good pay and never boring. Plenty of time for audiobooks or music. The downside? Early mornings and long days.

I have seen the guts of dozens or hundreds of different kinds of soda machines, and I can tell you, there is not one that possesses any kind of super-duper vending ability. They are all machines, they all break, and they all have reasons for working really well or not at all. That includes Lerna’s pop machine.

The “World’s Fastest Pop Machine” in Lerna was made by the Rock-Ola Company(sometimes spelled Rockola). Formed in 1927, Rock-Ola is best known for its line of iconic jukeboxes. As the company’s success grew, they began manufacturing slot machines, early arcade machines, and vending machines. All of these remain collectibles.

The Lerna pop can machine is likely a CCC5 model (or a close relative), which were made in the mid-to-late 1970s. The graphic lettering and faux wood are a dead giveaway. Be aware, these years and model numbers are not hard and fast. Given the unbelievable abuse these machines suffer, owners cobble together machines endlessly, cannibalizing parts to keep them running.

You open these vending machines by inserting a key into a tubular lock, turning the key, then removing it when the T-handle pops free. Then you turn this T-handle…and turn and turn and turn, long enough to unscrew the thick, threaded 3″ bolt. Then the machine’s open. A peek into the interior of the CCC5 is all you need to see EXACTLY why the product dispenses so quickly.

The majority of modern pop machines have fill partitions about a foot above the non-stick dispensing tray. Not the CCC5. The secret of the “World’s Fastest Pop Machine” lies in its dispensing mechanism, which resembles a line of metal conveyor belts. This  belt holds one of each can selection mere inches above the take-out port. Once you press your selection, all that’s left for the machine to do is shift that metal belt slightly. That allows the can to fall free in 1.47 milliseconds. To a human eye, it might as well be instantaneous.

Since it doesn’t take bills or credit cards, there’s no bill validator or network communication to slow things down. Since the cost of the pop is 75¢, customers would almost always put in correct change, which means no coin mechanism (coin mech in vending-speak) to deal with. The Rock-Ola CCC5 is as streamlined a vending machine as any in the world.

Interior of Rock-Ola CCC5 (with a modern dispensing tray)

If you’d like to test this, just reach your arm in the take out port of the World’s Fastest Pop Machine, you would no doubt feel the cold aluminum of soda cans on the tips of your fingers. No miracle machinery or magic. Just efficient engineering.

Why did they abandon this design? My educated guess is theft or vandalism. Unscrupulous people might try to force the metal belt to move, causing hundreds of dollars in damage just to avoid paying less than a dollar. It happens all the time. On modern machines, the cans are far enough out of reach to discourage all but the most dedicated thieves.

I also see product temperature to be an issue. Keeping chilled product that close to the open air means pop that could either be too warm (bad) or freeze (much worse). Warm pop doesn’t sell and frozen pop explodes and the sugar acts like a glue, gumming up the machine’s inner-workings.

Sadly, Lerna’s “Worlds Fastest Pop Machine” is now Out of Order, with no word to when it might return to service.  Above it is a discolored rectangle of wall where the “World’s Fastest” sign once hung. Hopefully, this legendary machine returns to service one day. Although we now know there’s nothing magical about it, it’s still an example of good ol’ American engineering.

*On a positive note, this engineering that may see a new dawn…In 2019, British businessman Alexander Walder-Smith purchased Rock-Ola with the goal of creating a jukebox that plays both 45s AND streamed music. Ambitious. 

As a special treat, here’s a few more vending machine myths I can quickly dispel. All were questions I was most frequently answered on my routes.

No doubt someone “accidentally” broke the glass…

Vending Myths, Busted

1.) Why do you guys charge so much for items? We don’t. The margins in the vending industry are VERY thin. Product prices are determined by the vending companies AND the company hosting the machine (they receive a substantial percentage of the profits). Vending companies want to keep the prices reasonable to move stock, since product expiration can murder your margins. For example, in 2015, my employer would have LOST money if he sold a 20 oz. Mountain Dew for less than $1.50. Vending companies have to pay significantly more for product than consumers pay on Wal-Mart shelves.

2.) Why do the machines break all the time? There’s 50 steps between the moment a customer inserts money and the moment product dispenses. If any one thing goes wrong, the machine stops working. Add to that the daily abuse the machine suffers, and you get get malfunctions. By abuse, I mean customers kicking, punching, picking it up, jiggling it, trying to wrestle out free product or money, power outages, extreme heat, extreme cold, power outages, dirty bills, sticky change, or just deliberate damage. I’ve seen tubes of Crazy Glue emptied in coin slots and piles of dead rats pushed beneath machines. Those poor machines suffer.

3.) I heard you can press buttons in a certain order and get free product. Yes, on many of the newer machines. I won’t tell you how. Sorry.

4.) I heard you can press buttons in a certain order and get free money. Nope, because that would be insane. It is very difficult to take money out of a vending machines without completely destroying it. Getting at a coin mech isn’t hard, but that’s only $25 in change, more or less. Getting at the bill box means somehow chewing through thick sheets of metal. It can’t be done quietly.