“The Incorruptible Cashier”

UNTIL WELL AFTER the Civil War, it was the rare merchant who knew the precise amount of his income. Few had an accurate or detailed record of sales or of receipts. Though the proprietor of a general store, hoping for scrupulous accounts, might actually instruct his clerk to record everything in the daybook “even if the house was on fire,” the clerk did not like to bother. Negligence, illiteracy, and laziness made the owner’s record incomplete. There were overwhelming temptations to pilfering, especially where sales were numerous, and where the salesclerk or bartender made change from his own pocket or from an open cashbox. As a result, the merchant seldom knew precisely how much he had taken in during a day, how many sales there had been at different prices, or how much leakage of merchandise he was suffering due to negligence or dishonesty. In a word, he lacked the facts he needed to figure his income or his profit.

The device which did more than any other to change all this was the “cash register,” an Americanism which entered the language about 1879, and which helped define the boundaries of new statistical communities.

JAMES RITTY, son of an Alsatian immigrant druggist, was the principal inventor of the cash register. Running a café-saloon in Dayton, Ohio, he was surprised to find that though customers were plentiful, there were no profits. Ritty suspected this was due to his weak-willed bartenders, who could not keep their fingers out of the open cash drawer. Apparently Ritty was so troubled by the petty thievery which was ruining his business that he suffered a breakdown, and in hope of a cure he took a vacation trip to Europe. On shipboard one day he visited the engine room, where he noticed a machine that automatically recorded each revolution of the propeller shaft. Was it possible, he wondered, that a similar machine might somehow record each sale in a café or a bar?

Ritty cut short his European trip and returned to Dayton, where he and his brother devised a rudimentary cash register which they patented on November 4, 1879. Their first model simply showed the amount of each transaction on a dial. They soon improved this to a tablet indicator which elevated a small plate displaying the amount both to the clerk and to the customer. Ritty believed that publicly displaying the amount the clerk was expected to put in the till would reduce the temptation to pilfer. And this machine was called “Ritty’s Incorruptible Cashier.”

Later he added a mechanism which recorded each of the day’s transactions on a paper roll so the owner could check on the amount in the cashbox and also discover the number and size of his transactions. Ritty and his brother began making cash registers in a room over the café-saloon. But they found the job too much for them. Ritty, deciding that he preferred to run a bar, sold the whole cash-register business, including the patents, for $1,000.

The new owner of Ritty’s cash-register patents added a cash drawer and a bell which rang every time the drawer was opened. Now the machine displayed the amount of each sale, required the clerk to record the sale in order to have access to the cash drawer, and at the same time recorded and added all transactions for the owner. When Americans, using another new expression, spoke of “ringing up” a sale, they were bearing witness to the success of the “Incorruptible Cashier.” Americans had thus found a way to give a new publicity to the shopkeeper’s smallest transaction. Shopping now was a semipublic, communal activity, announced by the ringing of bells. Within a few decades, the official history of the National Cash Register Company boasted, this bell “like the historic Revolutionary shot fired at Lexington … would be heard around the world.”

If this was only a slight exaggeration, it was because Ritty’s invention had come into the hands of John Henry Patterson, whose genius for the higher strategy of salesmanship made the National Cash Register Company a model of American Go-Getting enterprise. Patterson, raised on an Ohio farm near Dayton, had answered President Lincoln’s call for hundred-day enlistments in the Union Army. He graduated from Dartmouth College after the War in the class of 1867. Returning to Dayton, he started a coal business by buying coal at the nearby mines and selling it in small quantities direct to city consumers. Although he had plenty of cash customers, somehow he was losing money. Suspecting that this was due to petty pilfering from his cashbox, he installed one of the novel cash registers, and within six months he was showing a substantial profit.

One day in 1884 Patterson rashly agreed to pay $6,500 for a controlling interest in the shaky new cash-register enterprise. Other Dayton businessmen so ridiculed him for his bad judgment that the next day he offered the seller $2,000 to be released from his bargain. But his offer was refused. Patterson not only reconciled himself to his bad bargain, but brought to the prosaic world of cash registers a booster faith reminiscent of the founders of upstart cities like Chicago, Cincinnati, and Denver. And he proved an organizing talent comparable to that of Western fur traders and of the New England ice traders.

The cash register became Patterson’s religion. To make a success of it at the time did require abiding faith. Businessmen had never heard of it, and when employees had the cash register explained to them, they resented it as a slur on their character. But Patterson preached his own Gospel of “Making Proper Financial Records,” and he used statistics to help organize his missionaries to convert the country.

Patterson developed salesmanship itself into a new institution. On the principle that salesmen were made and not born, he opened what is sometimes called the first training school for salesmen. To an old school building near the Dayton factory he brought salesmen at company expense. He organized revival meetings in the form of regular sales conventions. Scorning the old rule-of-thumb high-pressure sales methods, Patterson taught that knowledge of his product was the salesman’s best tool. At the same time he insisted on the importance of irrational factors such as the salesman’s appearance; he sometimes provided a salesman with a whole wardrobe at company expense. He was adept at slogans, such as those which decried “Cash Drawer Weakness,” and he composed primers of sales techniques. “There is in every store a need which, when uncovered, will lead to the sale of a National cash register.” “You insure your life. Why not insure your money too! A National cash register will do it.”

Patterson initiated the sales quota and the “guaranteed territory” within which a salesman received a commission on any sale, no matter by whom it was made. This motivated the salesman to develop good will for the company and also avoided a damaging rivalry among salesmen. For each guaranteed territory there was a statistically derived sales quota, based on population, bank clearings, and past sales records, which the salesman was expected to meet. The quota system, according to Patterson, would take the guesswork out of selling and put selling on a firm mathematical foundation so that production could confidently be scheduled. Quotas also were the basis for membership in Patterson’s “Hundred Point Club” and his “NCR Legion of Honor.”

With his slogan “It pays!” Patterson elaborated a costly program of employee welfare and entertainment. He provided company recreation rooms, he planned company banquets and picnics, he offered courses, concerts, and lectures in the company auditorium, he landscaped the factory grounds into an “industrial garden” and he exhorted employees to morality, health, and patriotism. When Patterson was instructed by his doctors to do daily calisthenics, he required the other factory executives to join him at five every morning. Active and energetic until his death at the age of seventy-eight, he was the beau ideal, if not the caricature, of the Go-Getting Salesman.

As cash-register sales increased, spreading across the country and around the world, the machine itself was improved in ways that reinforced the nation’s number consciousness. Very early, Patterson himself had added a device for printing a customer’s receipt. More important in the long run were improvements that automatically provided the storekeeper with multi-totals, with sales classified by individual salespersons, by kinds of transactions, and by departments. Businessmen now had reliable up-to-date statistics on their business, so they could accurately figure their profits and losses, and the sources of both. These data made possible a revolution in business accounting. More and more workers and employees began to think quantitatively about their activities, their products, and their income. They were putting themselves in countless new statistical communities.

ALONG WITH the cash register came the calculating machine. Efforts to make such machines reached back to ancient times and around the world, and centuries earlier had produced the abacus. In the early seventeenth century a Scottish mathematician, John Napier, made a rudimentary calculating device, the forerunner of the slide rule; later in the century the French philosopher-mathematician Blaise Pascal invented a device which used revolving dials to make combinations of numbers. Then in the early nineteenth century the erratic English genius Charles Babbage, who was Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge University, became interested in calculating machines by way of statistics and astronomy. His effort to perfect an “engine of differences,” which would calculate and keep a record of its work and then record the result, became notorious when it consumed £17,000 of government money.

The American calculating machines, widely used even before the end of the nineteenth century, were efforts to serve the daily needs of bankers and merchants; and they were the work not of astronomers or mathematicians, but of mechanics. American inventors tried to perfect a machine that would conveniently register the digits by the depressing of keys. In 1857 a patent was issued for a key-driven “Arithmometer” (not to be confused with Elizur Wright’s calculating machine, the “Arithmeter”), but the machine was not practical. The quest for a practical key-driven calculator, like the quest for a typewriter, enlisted the energies of countless able mechanics and optimistic cranks. Finally a young machinist, Dorr E. Felt, while running a ratchet-fed planing machine, was inspired to make a calculating machine with a ratchet design. Using an old macaroni box, with meat skewers from his butcher, staples from the hardware store, and elastic bands to serve as springs, Felt put together the first model of the machine he patented in 1887. Called the “Comptometer,” this was the first practical key-driven multiple-order (i.e., with separate rows for digits, tens, hundreds, etc.) calculating machine. Marketed by Felt, it was soon in daily use at the United States Treasury and the New York State Weather Bureau.

The need remained for a machine that not only would calculate but would also record the items and print the result. And the solution to this problem was the theme of one of the more spectacular industrial success stories of the age. William S. Burroughs, born in 1855 in upstate New York, was the son of an impoverished maker of patterns for castings and models for inventions. While spending long hours in an Auburn bank adding up columns of figures, young Burroughs was impressed by the drudgery of the work, by the frequency of mistakes, and by the constant need to check for errors. When his health broke down and the doctor prescribed a more active life, Burroughs went west to St. Louis, where he got a job in a machine shop.

At the age of twenty-six, prodded by his unhappy experience as a human adding machine and inspired by the visionary inventors whom he had seen in his father’s shop, he determined to invent a machine that would both add and record. In 1888 he patented a recording-adder and persuaded several St. Louis merchants to put up $100,000 for its manufacture. After costly experiments, Burroughs’ group had manufactured only fifty machines by 1891. But Burroughs, according to one of his associates, “loved the machine better than he did the dollar.” Company legend records that when he found that the machines they had made did not come up to his expectations, he took them from the storeroom and hurled them out the window one by one onto the pavement below. Nevertheless, he carried on his work, and by 1892 he had patented an improved model that printed each of the running figures as well as the final total. In 1895 Burroughs’ company sold 284 machines, mostly to banks; the next year the English patent rights were sold for $200,000. But overwork aggravated the tuberculosis which Burroughs had contracted in the bank in Auburn, and he died in 1898, before he could reap his profits. Within eight years, five thousand Burroughs adding machines were being sold annually. By 1913 the company had twenty-five hundred employees and annual sales exceeding $8 million, more than that of all its competitors together, and was sending Burroughs machines around the world.

The machine which Burroughs called his “Registering Accountant” was only a first step. Within a few years the pioneer Moon-Hopkins Billing Machine combined the typewriter with the recording-adder for speedier bookkeeping and billing. The cash register and the calculating machine had provided businessmen with their own private, accurate, up-to-the-minute statistics about their enterprises. The machines would be endlessly elaborated and refined, but the cash register and the calculating machine had already made possible an American system of merchandising and accounting as distinctive as the American system of manufacturing.

When automation became widespread and electronic computers became almost as common as the adding machine, there were new cataclysms in the jobs of Americans and in their ways of thinking. By 1967, only a half-century after the first commercially successful billing machine, the annual American production of cash registers and computing machines totaled more than $4.5 billion. When precise and up-to-date information was available about the quantities of everything, businessmen and consumers could not help thinking quantitatively.

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