This past week, while working on a scene set in a general store, I got to wondering when cash registers might have been found in the Old West. I was surprised to discover that the cash register (called a Cashier at the time) was invented in 1879 by a saloon owner.
James Jacob Ritty, owner of the popular Pony House Saloon in Dayton, Ohio, knew something was wrong. Buffalo Bill and John Dillinger were among his many customers and business was booming. Still he saw no profit. He was suspicious that his bartenders were dipping into the till but couldn’t prove it.
The problem was very much on his mind during a sailing trip to Europe. While studying the ship’s mechanics, particularly the counting mechanism that recorded the propeller’s revolutions, he got an idea; why not invent a device that would record a shop’s sales?
Upon returning to the states, he ran his idea by his brother, John, and after a couple of false starts, the two patented what became known as Ritty’s Incorruptible Cashier.
The machine had a clock-like feature that rang up sales, but no cash drawer. During each sale, a paper tape was punched with holes so that the merchant could keep track of sales. At the end of the day, the merchant could add up the holes. This was no easy task. Even though the machine was designed to record daily sales no greater than $12.99, the tally could be as long as twenty feet.
Their invention worked and Ritty’s profits rose, but it wasn’t fool proof. Without a cash drawer, money still turned up in the wrong pockets.
The brothers later added a cash drawer and the Cha-Ching sound that shop owners love to hear. (It’s thought that merchants came up with odd prices like forty-nine or ninety-nine cents, so cashiers would have to open the till to make change. This helped insure that all sales were recorded.)
The brothers opened a factory above the saloon. Running two businesses soon proved too much for James, and he sold his cashier business to a group of investors. Eventually, the company sold to John H. Patterson who renamed it the National Cash Register Corporation.
The Thief Catcher
By the 1880s, cash registers could be found in retail shops across the country. Though the new and improved registers aided bookkeeping and inventory chores, they were resented by clerks. It’s easy to understand why; the machines were called “thief catchers.” Honest clerks resented the implication and dishonest clerks missed the extra income.
But then, as now, enterprising thieves always found a way.
Speaking of thieves, do you always ask for receipts, even at fast food outlets? If not, you should. Dishonest clerks can do a lot with unclaimed receipts–and none of it good!
The only thing threatening their success is love!