Old cash registers: How they were invented, plus see 20 vintage registers

Vintage Cash Register Adding Machine Antique Merchant Tool

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The National Cash Register company was started in 1884, and was one of the first such companies. They have also been one of the most successful.

NCR, as they’re now known, is now a multi-billion dollar company, and as of 2019, employs 36,000 people.Ka-ching!

Old cash register history, starting with the NCR company (1966)

By Joe Fenley – Dayton Daily News (Ohio) December 11, 1966

Computers may be the frosting on the cake, but cash registers are still the bread and butter items at the National Cash Register Co.

In an age when increasing attention is being focused on computers and data processing systems, little is heard of the cash register, even at the National Cash Register Co., where cash registers were pioneered.

But a check with NCR showed that the Dayton firm is still very much “in” the cash register business.

Vintage old cash register
Photo by cookelma/Envato

THE SALE of cash registers still accounts for a large part of NCR revenue, and is still one of the biggest single marketing items.

And James Ritty, who built the first simple cash register in 1878, would be amazed if he could see how his basic idea has been refined. Ritty, the owner of a Dayton restaurant, was credited with the development of the basic idea of the cash register. This was in 1878.

The following year, Ritty, and his brother, John Ritty, begun building what was to be the first cash register. That first crude model did not even contain a cash drawer.

BUT IT DID have two adding discs that totaled up sales made in the course of a day’s business. By late that year, Ritty had a model, his third, which was named Ritty’s Incorruptible Cashier.

The very name and concept of the cash register were enough to raise the ire of clerks, who regarded the units as “thief catchers” and “new-fangled machines.”

Beautiful antique cash register

Ritty’s fourth model, a “paper-roll machine,” was the first to actually go on the market and be uséd in stores. It was also the model used by John Patterson in his store in Coaltown, Ohio.

About 1881, Ritty sold out his business for $1,000 to Jacob H. Eckert of Cincinnati. The following year, Eckert and four other men organized the National Manufacturing Co.

IT WAS about this time that the cash drawer and a bell were added to the cash register.

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In 1883, Patterson brought stock in National Manufacturing Co. The following year, Patterson and his brother, Frank Patterson, made a trip West to buy a ranch.

On the trip, they met a New England merchant who said he was able to take time off to vacation because he had a good manager and a cash register made in Dayton to watch out for his interests back home.

Vintage NCR cash registers from 1910 (2)

THE PATTERSONS returned to Dayton and paid $6,500 for control of the National Manufacturing Co., an act that drew hoots of laughter from friends.

In 1884, Patterson changed the name of the firm to the National Cash Register Co. He started operations in a factory measuring 40 by 80 feet and with 15 employees.

Since then, NCR’s employment has climbed to 75,000 persons worldwide. The firm employs about 18,000 persons in Dayton.

C. L. Keenoy, vice president of domestic marketing, directs NCR’s domestic marketing programs in the United States and Canada and has 17,000 employees under his supervision.

One of Keenoy’s favorite discussion topics is the cash register. The sales of accounting machines and electronic data processing equipment combines are greater than the sales volume for cash registers, says Keenoy.

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Vintage cash register

BUT HE NOTES that the cash register still represents a substantial share of NCR’s total business.

Another plus feature is that most cash register sales are for cash, as opposed to the computer side of the business where the lion’s share of marketing is on a lease basis or a long-term lease-buy basis.

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Early cash registers, he said, were designed primarily to protect cash and to make sure that the merchant got his money. They decreased dishonesty and increased efficiency.

Also, customers, then, as now, could see what amount the clerk rang up.

Even the early cash registers provided locked totals inside to which only the owner of a business had access by means of a key. At the end of each day, a store owner could tell how much money was supposed to be in the register, or cash drawer.

Antique metal cash register
Photo by chelseatrusty12 via Twenty20

BASICALLY, EARLY cash registers were categorized as single-total machines. They performed relatively simple tasks.

But) it became apparent, said Keenoy, that merchants wanted more information and performance than was pos- sihle with the earliest registers,

The demand, improving technology, and experimentation, he said, led to basic improvements.

These improvements — included installation of an adding machine feature to the register which helped clerks with arithmetic.

Ways were found so registers could give merchants information on how much business each clerk did, how many items in a specific line were sold, and give sub-totals as well as grand totals.

Vintage NCR cash registers from 1910 (3)

EACH DEVELOPMENT and improvement cost hundreds of thousands of dollars in engineering and tooling costs. Registers got larger and more expensive. They were good, but they were still mechanical and had physical limitations.

Charles Kettering made cash register history by working out a way to add a motor io mechanize registers. He discovered how to get multiple adding machines under one cover,’ said Keenoy.

But there were still limitations.

Any one clerk was “tied” to a specific register. A merchant might find it necessary to put in more registers than his business volume justified. It was also inconvenient for customers, who might find it necessary to go through sales procedures with several different clerks, even in a small store, depending on what was bought and where it was located in the store.

Vintage NCR cash registers from 1910 (1)

“THE PROBLEM was how to break out of this rut,” said Keenoy. The development of “paper-tape recorders,” which recorded in punched holes that could be read by a computer, helped.

This development provided registers with such capabilities that any clerk could use any register in the store to sell any item of merchandise carried.

It was no longer necessary for registers to be 80 bulky and cumbersome. And with fewer keys, they could perform more functions.

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More sophisticated machines handle charge account sales, layaways, C.O.D. sales, discounts and other items.

Cash registers have become, in effect, computer input machines, since they can capture pertinent information in machine language. For some applications, registers can print in stylized optical numbers which can be read into a computer by a scanner,

THEY HAVE MADE it possible for stares to automate many major functions, such as customer billing and computation of sales commissions. They also provide some forms of inventory control.

Even now, some registers have the capability to handle inventory ordering, subject to final approval by the store buyer.

Vintage metal cash register from the 1900s
Photo by rockstar19971 via Twenty20

Here’s one of NCR’s ads from 1912, touting the benefits of using a cash register versus the old-fashioned cash box and handwritten receipt method many merchants still used.

A customer leaving your store must have done one of 5 things

1. Bought goods for cash
2. Bought goods on credit
3. Paid money on account
4. Collected money
5. Changed a coin or a bill

Cash registers in 1912

Antique cash register
Photo by codymc via Twenty20
Vintage store cash register machine
Photo by frenchcoco via Twenty20
Cash register history
Photo by mikehutch40 via Twenty20
Antique cash register
Photo by leighdarilek via Twenty20
Vintage cash register
Vintage cash register

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Photo by cmvx1 via Twenty20
Photo by cmvx1 via Twenty20
Old metal cash register
Photo by klaudiagpc via Twenty20
Photo by missglendy via Twenty20
Photo by missglendy via Twenty20
Photo by scoobydrew81 via Twenty20
Photo by scoobydrew81 via Twenty20
Photo by teacasey via Twenty20
Photo by teacasey via Twenty20
Hallwood cash register from 1899
Hallwood cash register from 1899
Vintage Cash Register Adding Machine Antique Merchant Tool
Photo by Christopher_Boswell/Envato

MORE: The history of the telephone, with 50 examples of old phones, including early rotary-dial models

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