- Historic Sites
The Machine That Kept Them Honest
J. H. Patterson, the first supersalesman, put his cash register in every emporium and banished itchy fingers from the till
August 1966 | Volume 17, Issue 5
Patterson was fascinated. He plunged into a thirtyseven-day fast which left him so weak that he turned to Sandow in London, then known as “The Strongest Man in the World,” to build him up again. When Patterson returned to Dayton, he brought with him a cockney trainer, or rubber, from Sandow’s entourage, a wizened little man named Charles Palmer who claimed to have an extraordinary ability to read human character. This odd-ball gym attendant established an almost hypnotic ascendancy over the cash register millionaire and interfered in company affairs, causing many resignations and dismissals.
Charles Palmer hated Dayton. While under Palmer’s influence and at a time when he was displeased with the city government, Patterson put together a bitter indictment of the city and announced that the N.C.R. was pulling out. Meanwhile, under Palmer’s direction, butter, eggs, salt, and pepper disappeared from the officers’ dining room. Even the sacred American Selling Force was not immune to the new regimen. The men were ordered to cut out coffee, tea, and cigars when they were assembled at the home office. Executives obediently drank bottled water, did their calisthenics, and turned out at dawn for horseback riding. Many of them had never been on a horse before. Naturally, the N.C.R. official family became known as “The N.C.R. Rough Riders.” The Horse Period was regarded as one of Patterson’s more hilarious antics. But for one family it spelled tragedy when the bread- winner, a company official, was thrown and killed. Patterson brought a series of libel suits against the Dayton Daily News when it raised its voice in protest against his eccentric mania for the diminutive English chap. Patterson huffed and puffed but backed down when the News began to take depositions. Palmer wore out his welcome and failed to return after a European sojourn. Patterson soon relented in his attitude toward Dayton, later instituted many generous and far-sighted projects for community betterment, including in particular his dream that aviation research might be centralized at Dayton, where the Wrights were born. And Dayton remembers. There is a Patterson Boulevard, the great Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, linking the names of three famous Daytonians, and on parkland he gave to the city there is a heroic statue of Patterson. He is, of course, on a horse.
Over the years, the exodus of able men trained in the N.C.R. methods became legendary. Among the names of prominent alumni appear those of men who later became notable in other fields, such as the already mentioned Thomas J. Watson of I.B.M. and Hugh Chalmers, Edward S. Jordan, Alvan Macauley, Richard H. Grant, and C. F. (“Boss”) Kettering of the automotive industry. At one time Patterson developed the habit of cleaning out his executives’ desks and burning all the personal contents, even to the family portraits, on the theory that an executive should start fresh every so often. When a man began to look indispensable, he was as good as dead. In his deceptively meek manner Patterson would stutter, if disagreement developed, “Well, well, well, you ought to know best.” But old hands knew it was the beginning of the end.
Once the president asked a foreman if he was satisfied with the work in his department. He said he was.
“All right,” snapped Patterson, “you’re fired.”
In his last decade the founder was plagued with some of the penalties of leadership. The N.C.R. was charged with unfair competition in a Michigan state court by the American Cash Register Company, an old rival, which produced damaging testimony from a defecting N.C.R. agent. There were claims and counterclaims of harassment, industrial espionage, pirating, and bribery. Some of the battles became actual fist fights in the P.P.’s store. The verdict in this case was adverse to Patterson. At approximately the same time —in the U.S. District Court of Southern Ohio—the federal government brought suit against the president and twenty-nine other officials of the company for criminal and civil violations of the Sherman Antitrust Act. During the proceedings the court heard some of the uninhibited words Patterson had used in the old days, such as:
“The best way to kill a dog is to cut off his head.”
“We do not buy out. We knock out.”
Charges were aired of sabotage, industrial spying, payoffs, and harassment through patent litigation.
In 1913 the defendants were adjudged guilty and received jail sentences and fines of varying amounts. Patterson drew a fine of !5,000 and a year in the county jail at Troy. The verdict was appealed, of course. But before the Court of Appeals had handed down its decision, John H. Patterson had the chance to become a national hero.