The Machine That Kept Them Honest


The machine was the cash register. The clangor of its bell fell pleasantly upon the car, whether activated by dollars and cents, pounds and pence, francs, marks, florins, lire, pesetas, or pesos.

The man behind the bell was an Ohio farm boy who promoted a novel counting device of wheels and springs grandly encased in an ornate bronze or nickel sheath. When a clerk pressed a key the machine gave out with its joyous tintinnabulation. In the beginning no one had heard of the cash register. But John Henry Patterson changed all that. To do it he had to invent American Salesmanship.

John H. Patterson was a not-so-young hustler lightly endowed with this world’s goods when in iSS^ he offered $0,500 for the controlling interest in an obscure little factory in Slidertown—a slum area of Dayton, Ohio—which manufactured the new machine that was to make the open cash drawer obsolete. Dayton laughed so hard that Patterson panicked and tried, unsuccessfully, to back out of the deal, it was too late. The seller confided that lie wouldn’t take the stock as a gift. Hut Patterson’s fortune was as good as made, and the story of selling had to be rewritten. What the small, sandy-haired, intense promoter did with the cash register made entrepreneurial history; and the tales told of the man himself will be repeated, with no embellishment needed, as long as men wearing name tags convene to learn how to sell widgets, or management types gather at country clubs to relax at the nineteenth hole. Patterson’s solid achievements, his impressive list of business “firsts,” are enough to secure him a hiirh and endurinsi ulace in mercantile history.

The Autocrat of the Cash Register was horn in 1844 of pioneer stock on the family farm near Dayton. He attended the lotal schools, spent a year at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, and was graduated from Dartmouth College. There he acquired, Patterson often remarked, much useless knowledge. His prejudice against higher education lasted through the rest of his idiosyncratic life. After college, Patterson worked on his father’s farm, later became a toll collector on the Miami and Erie Canal, and still later, witli his two brothers, ran a coal yard, developed coal and iron mines in Jackson County, Ohio, and was for several years the general manager for the Southern Coal and Iron Company at Coalton, Ohio.

The Southern operated a company store. Instead of turning in a profit of $12,000, which the books said it should, the store was actually losing $6,000 a year because, Patterson discovered, his clerks were dishonest. At this point he read that James S. Ritty, a Dayton saloonkeeper with similar problems, and his mechanically minded brother, John, had invented a contraption that tabulated sales as they were made and registered them publicly. In order to open the cash drawer and make change, the clerk was compelled to ring up the sale. The bell on the device—at the time Patterson heard about the register, it gave out a loud bong —forced him to deposit the money received. In sum, the magic money box provided publicity, protection, and compulsory morality.

The cash register was expensive, costing all of fifty dollars. But Patterson, even though he had probably never seen one, promptly telegraphed for two. At the time there were only about a dozen in use, under the name “Kitty’s Incorruptible Cashier.” With the introduction of the new machines the profit picture at Kitty’s oasis in Dayton brightened, and John H. Pat- terson’s store also moved into the black. The Patterson brothers immediately purchased a block of cash register stock—this was in 1882—and two years later, with John H. in the lead, acquired control of the business and soon changed the name to National Cash Register Company.

Thus, at the age of forty, with no manufacturing experience and little capital, Patterson started in to build a business upon an article almost no one wanted or knew how to use. Known as a “thief catcher,” the device aroused such fury among bartenders and café cashiers that a travelling man who was handling another item, say sewing machines, found it prudent when entering a drinking parlor to say loudly and distinctly that he was not associated with the N.C.R.

The man in absolute control of that company—”the Cash” it came to be called in Dayton—was small, wiry, a natty dresser; he had penetrating gray eyes, a florid complexion, luxuriant white handlebar mustaches, and a quick mind untrammelled by convention. Patterson quickly improved the cash register, took out several patents in his own name, introduced a system of quality control, and turned his attention to the problems of advertising and selling.

The important businessmen of the time were converters of raw materials, railroad presidents, and hardshelled merchants who had survived the panic of ’73. Advertising by and large consisted of drab announcements. Selling was glad-handing, a matter of exploiting a genial personality that attracted a following in “the trade.” Look the part. Sell yourself and you sell your product. Manufacturing was getting men to work for as little as possible. Card indices, filing systems, and duplicating machines had not been heard of.