The First Cash Register
This week marks the anniversary of the granting of a patent for the world’s first mechanical cash register. Patent number 221,360 was granted to one James Jacob Ritty on November 04 1879. While one would imagine that the motivation was to make the running of a business easier and more efficient, in fact the motivation for this invention was much more basic. You see, Ritty was the owner of a saloon in Dayton, Ohio. He styled himself a ‘dealer in pure whiskeys, fine wines and cigars’ and he had a problem. Some of his profits were disappearing. Yes, you’ve guessed it – the cash register was invented purely to stop employee theft.
The Ritty Model 1 was invented by James Ritty, with the help of his brother John, after he noticed a tool on a steamship which counted the revolutions of the propeller. He decided that if one could count the revolutions on a machine part, one could also count the money going into the till in his saloon. The resulting simple adding machine which they developed was called Ritty’s Incorruptible Cashier. It was entirely mechanical, with no receipt, and at first no drawer. The employees rang up transactions on the register, and when the total key was pushed, a bell rang, alerting the manager that a sale was taking place. It was a rudimentary machine, but it allowed the manager to know exactly when a sale was made, and it made it easy for him to check up on the money taken in.
As often with these stories, Ritty didn’t make too much money from his invention. He and his brother sold their rights to their machine in 1881, after finding few customers. The new owner didn’t do well either. It wasn’t until 1884, when John H Patterson bought the company, that it became a gold mine. He had been one of the Ritty’s first customers. He renamed the company the National Cash Register Company. NCR soon became the dominant force in the cash register business. We’ve come a long way since then, but I now understand something I’ve wondered about – why a bell rings at the end of the transaction. You never know who’s watching!