The Machine That Kept Them Honest


John H. Patterson loved to instruct. And he was a convinced eye-minded man. “Visuali/e! Analyze! Dramatize!” he urged, and installed in his offices hundreds of blackboards and pedestals bearing pads of coarse paper three feet long by two feet wide for jotting down problems or plans. Sometimes he drew pictographs, and he liked others to do the same. It wasn’t enough to say “cow.” At the Cash, one had to draw the cow.

“The optic nerve is twenty-two times stronger than the auditory nerve,” the boss of N.C.R. declared as he made a quick chalk talk or scribbled THINK on the sheet. This cabalistic word was, incidentally, the inspiration of the kinetic Thomas J. Watson, who started out in the world selling pianos, organs, and sewing machines from a bright yellow democrat wagon. Watson got his postgraduate training in Patterson’s University of Hard Knocks and went on to transform a faltering combination called the Computing-Tabulating-Recording Company into the fabulous International Business Machines Corporation.

To Patterson the number five was what seven was to the ancients, a digit endowed with occult power. Significantly, he thought, man has five senses, five fingers, five toes. There were five steps to making a sales pitch. Every problem, Patterson saw, had five parts. The figure was woven into the very fabric of the National Cash Register Company. In 1920, at the end of his life, filled with eagerness to see the League of Nations succeed, Patterson went to Geneva, studied the structure of the world organization, got out the old N.C.R. textbook, and charted the purposes of the League- under, of course, five headings.

The center of Patterson’s training of his male employees was the N.C.R. Hall of Industrial Education, or the Schoolhouse, where salesmen and agents sometimes acted out little allegorical dramas resembling the old miracle plays with which the Church taught its children in the Middle Ages. An example: men on crutches, others with bandaged arms or legs or eyes, attempted to climb steps toward a bag with a dollar sign on it hanging over the stage. But they could not reach it. Other men emerged from a replica of the Schoolhouse carrying additional steps marked “Uses Advertising Matter,” or “Cuts out Cigarettes.” With these aids they successfully reached the bag and gave it a mighty wallop; out showered salary checks and special cash prizes.

The female counterpart of the Hall of Education was the Vacation House, where women employees gathered to learn about the menace of the housefly and were taught how to manage their homes. And frequently little N.C.R. children were herded into one of the buildings to learn how to save their money, how to masticate their food, and how coughing and snee/ing scattered germs. All this they endured patiently, knowing that later there would be cookies and a movie about Indians. To an extraordinary degree, Patterson regarded the company’s assets, human as well as material, as a simple extension of his own personality. Indeed, Patterson took the whole city as a part of his demesne, even at one time exhorting the clergy to drop the Scriptures in favor of his own pet causes—landscape gardening, the city-manager form of municipal government, and the proper care of the teeth.

Some of Patterson’s utterances sound trite today, such as his call for “Head-Power, Hand-Power, HeartPower”; or this one: “By Hammer and Hand All Arts Do Stand.” Maybe they sounded that way when he said them. But those who entertained such a heretical attitude were quickly rinsed out of N.C.R.’s hair. Patterson was a great man for signs that expressed the little truisms in which he placed great faith. “It Pays” appeared on walls all through the N.C.R. buildings. He painted “We Progress Through Change” on a tall factory chimney, put cards on every office desk saying “Do it Now” and “Verbal Orders Don’t Go.”

Patterson was always open-minded, and sometimes credulous, when he encountered a theory that was apparently based upon scientific or quasi-scientific premises. He became interested, for example, in the study of business cycles long before most businessmen had ever heard of the concept, and believed that the price of pig iron was a clue to a certain periodicity in business trends. Scientific or not, it is a fact that Patterson was getting ready for a storm long before the depression of 1893 arrived. When it came he “had his fighting clothes on”: he made the panic year one of the brightest the company had experienced, successfully selling, in those shaky days, a $350 model.

The vegetarian dietary ideas that were disseminated from the Battle Creek Sanitarium in Michigan by another skillful publicist, Dr. John Harvey Kellogg, attracted Patterson’s favorable attention. He often journeyed to Battle Creek when he felt the onset of managerial fatigue. As the Dayton Daily News said, he was “more than strong for all that Battle Creek stuff.” During a trip abroad to expand the N.C.R. business in Europe, Patterson met Horace Fletcher, a health faddist who also had Battle Creek associations. Fletcher was a eupeptic millionaire who had passed through New Thought and Yoga, had once lived for fifty-eight days on potatoes, and was then propagandizing for a physiological regimen known as “Fletcherism.” Fletcher believed that people ought to eat less and that the more one chews the less he needs to eat. He dramatized his ideas by prescribing that his followers chew every bite thirty-two times—one chew for each tooth in man’s normal complement.