05/12/2021

006 – Buttons and bells – 1879

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All you need in this life is ignorance and confidence; then success is sure.  Mark Twain

James Ritty was an American bar owner whose first operation in 1871 sold beer at just a nickel a stein, a bucket cost fifteen cents.  Ritty offered free food at the bar, including boiled eggs, sardines, cold meats, pigs’ feet, pickles, pretzels, crackers and bread.  Sounds like a deal!

By 1882 he had opened the Pony House in Dayton, Ohio offering drinking, dining and gaming, and reputedly satisfying other desires too!  Close to the railway station, he claimed to have served Buffalo Bill, fighter Jack Dempsey and gangster John Dillinger.

But Ritty realised he was not in fact making the profit he expected.  His bar staff were pocketing far too much of the takings so he looked for a way to control this theft. 

On a steamboat trip to Europe he came up with his first idea.  On seeing a mechanism that counted the revolutions of the ship’s propeller he thought this might offer a solution to his problem.

Ritty engaged his brother John to develop a device to record the takings.  The first attempt resembled a clock that displayed the bartender’s entry, the hands showing dollars and cents. 

This enabled Ritty to sit at the bar and ensure that what had been served to the customer agreed with the display on the machine.  Unfortunately this system proved far too inaccurate.

A third attempt provided the breakthrough. 

The machine had keys to enter an amount, though as yet there was no cash drawer, and of course it could not do the arithmetic to tot up a round.  This was still the responsibility of the ‘barista’ who had to calculate the sum mentally and enter the total.

In 1879 this was patented as Ritty’s Incorruptible Cashier and a small manufacturing plant established to build these very first cash registers.  The business was sold to a china and glassware salesman who renamed it the National Manufacturing Company which was then sold on again in 1884 to John H Patterson.  This time the name was changed to the National Cash Register Company (NCR), a company we recognise today.

Under Patterson a cash drawer was added, together with a bell to alert the owner when it was opened.  There was also a paper roll to retain an audit of the day’s transactions.  This roll was punched within virtual columns so the amounts could later be summed and checked against the cash in the drawer.

Charles F Kettering added an electric motor in 1906.  However from then until the 1970s these electromechanical devices stayed pretty much the same, although the machinery progressively became more compact and increasingly complicated as engineering skills allowed new techniques to be included.  Mechanical cash registers would eventually add up purchases, provide sales group analyses and even produce punched-paper tape output.

NCR would dominate the cash register business for many years.  It launched its first computer, model 304, the world’s first commercially-available fully-transistorised business computer in 1958.  The company was acquired by AT&T in September 1991.

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