As a part of a university project in 2012, student Max Albrecht designed a cryptocurrency vending machine that converted €1 coins into bitcoin.
This low-tech version of a bitcoin ATM was built with a modest budget of €150 (around $200 at today’s prices). Furthermore, it was created not as part of a tech, business or computing course, but as an art installation.
To create his ATM, Albrecht bought a second-hand vending machine that cost him roughly €80 ($110). He printed out both private keys and links to individual online wallets, put the paper slips in small cardboard boxes, and put those in the vending machine.
A customer would simply need to insert a coin to get a voucher for their euro’s-worth of bitcoin, which was stored on easywallet.com. The printout also explained what to do with the link, so that newbies could become familiar with bitcoin transactions.
With bitcoin ATMs now popping up all over the world, Albrecht is wondering if his creation was in fact the world’s first bitcoin ATM.
Inspired by crisis
While studying Fine Arts at Bauhaus University in Weimar, Germany, one of Albrecht’s assignments was to create an installation that fit the theme of ‘Panta Rhei’ (‘Everything Flows’).
As a part of the course, the students took an excursion to Greece, which had recently been hard hit by the financial crisis. Keeping both of those aspects in mind, Albrecht came up with the concept of the bitcoin vending machine.
“The instability of the euro was part of my inspiration at the time. I thought it would be nice to have an artwork that could address the fact that we have a currency in Europe which is dwindling.”
While the Euro was getting weaker in 2012, bitcoin was ‘soaring’ at $9 apiece. People were starting to hear about bitcoin, but there weren’t many places to spend it at the time.
So, Albrecht added a feature to his installation that would allow users to send their euro’s-worth of bitcoin to WikiLeaks.
When the vending machine was first exhibited, Mastercard and PayPal had blocked donations to WikiLeaks, making bitcoin one of the few ways to send funds to the organisation.
During the initial exhibition at the student union bar in Bauhaus, almost 30 people traded their euros for bitcoin. However, Albrecht says that his installation was not about finding a practical solution for converting currency to bitcoin, it was more of a statement.
“My favourite story about the art project is from a friend of mine who told me, ‘your artwork works because last night I had to explain to some dude in a bar at 3am what the f*** is bitcoin’.”
Albrecht knows that his two-year-old invention is clunky compared to the more practical and advanced solutions on the market now.
Notable amongst these are Robocoin and Lamassu, which have quickly become two of the world’s most popular manufacturers. While Lamassu’s machine only allows users to convert cash to bitcoin, Robocoin’s converts both ways.
Both Lamassu and Robocoin showcased their ATMs at the Bitcoin 2013 conference in San Jose.
Lamassu started selling last October and sold 100 units in just three months. The company’s ATMs are now installed across the globe in places like Helsinki, Bratisalva and even Zurich, where Albrecht currently lives and works at the Zurich University of Arts.
His original vending machine, however, is still in Weimar where it was first conceived. Albrecht continues to supply the bitcoin, which he buys in Switzerland, while his friend Killian Ullmann physically refills the vending machine in Germany.
New machine planned
Even though there are other, more practical conversion solutions around, Albrecht quite likes the simple novelty of his machine.
“I really like this low-tech version of [an ATM] because this can go on forever. It’s not hackable and it doesn’t need electricity.”
He intends on installing a version in Zurich in the future, where members of the bitcoin meet-up group have encouraged him to do so. Albrecht also says he may start to incorporate QR codes and paper wallets, rather than the paper “coupons” used since 2012.
He also wonders if his invention was the first ever bitcoin ATM. Construction took place in July 2012, whereas Robocoin and Lamassu didn’t launch until the following year.
If there aren’t any other contenders, maybe Albrecht should get the title.
Photo credit: Kilian Ullmann