The Machine That Kept Them Honest


On Tuesday, March 25, 1913, came the Dayton Flood. The city stood under six to eighteen feet of water. One hundred million dollars’ worth of property was destroyed, and 90,000 people were made homeless. With his unconquerable spirit and the material resources he provided, Patterson saved the city. Crayon in hand, he quickly outlined a relief plan on his handy easel pad. Food, tents, medicines, and hospital equipment were moved to the N.C.R. property, which fortunately stood on high ground and had its own power plant. Company bakers started baking bread around the clock, and the assembly line at N.C.R. soon was turning out rowboats—one every seven minutes. Thousands of Daytonians were fed at the N.C.R. cafeteria, slept on hay in the offices (the hay was changed every night), drank bottled water out of mandatory paper cups that Patterson provided, and wore the heavy woolen stockings he prescribed for them. Five babies were born in the factory in one day alone. This explains why “Cash” can really be a man’s name. Newspaper reporters, never neglected by Patterson, enjoyed free room and board on the top floor of the administration building, with such amenities available as pinochle cards and ewers of whiskey which were described for Patterson’s benefit as “pop.” One legend placed Patterson himself, at the age of sixty-five and then under a jail sentence, at the end of a tow line at Main and Apple streets, waist-deep in the swirling waters. Dayton needed a hero and Patterson had a legitimate claim to the role.

Miss Evangeline Cary Booth, commander in chief of the Salvation Army, announced that John H. Patterson was the instrument of the Lord and would be rewarded. And so he was. The United States Court of Appeals reversed the decision of the lower court, largely on the ground that the National Cash Register Company had been denied the right to show that its actions in the old, bad days were the consequence of patent infringements and other destructive practices by the rascally “opposition.” One competitor had ridiculed N.C.R. improvements as “ornamental jimcracks which cumber the machine and add little to its value but serve as an excuse for exorbitant prices.” Another had unkindly distributed a circular entitled Fourteen Ways of Beating the National Cash Register , which listed ways to manipulate the Cash’s machines so as to prove them inaccurate. The Supreme Court refused to consider the case, which meant that the decision of the Court of Appeals stood. To celebrate the triumph of justice twenty thousand Daytonians formed a victory parade with flags and brass bands.

The last sales conference conducted under Patterson’s eye was held in January, 1922, to honor the men who had “helped to keep the smokestacks smoking” during the recession of 1921. The agents and salesmen who had bettered their quotas got three days of inspiration and elevation in Dayton, then boarded a fourteen-car all-Pullman train for three exhilarating days in New York. The picked men thrilled to the N.C.R. chorus that welcomed them at Dayton with the Soldiers’ Chorus from Faust. In response, they rose to their feet in roaring tribute to the bouncy Founder.

“With depression you went to the mat,” said H. G. Sisson of the Publicity Department, as he recited a poem of his own composition:

You were there on the spot where the fighting was hot, And you won where the weaker men failed. Though you may have been jarred when the sledding grew hard And your arguments seemed to be spent; Why, you simply began on the old selling plan And you finished one hundred per cent.

Then the chevaliers of the N.C.R. Legion of Honor got the message for the next year. There was a door leading into 1922. Turn the knob and find Opportunity; remember such Patterson aphorisms as “Analyze —don’t antagonize,” “Every time you sell a merchant a National Cash Register you are doing him a big favor,” and “Stay five minutes longer.” There was the mass photograph on the steps of the Schoolhouse and the comradely fraternizing with the factory workers.

When the time came for the Hundred Per Cent Club to entrain for New York, Dayton put aside its ordinary preoccupations. On signal from the factory whistle, the men and women of N.C.R. formed eight abreast in a column a mile long, and then with flags flying, bands blaring, and symbolical floats, they paraded to the Union Station singing special lyrics arranged to the tune of “Marching Through Georgia.” Patterson revelled in the convention, but for him time was running out. He died suddenly on his way to Atlantic City in May, at seventy-seven years of age. Just two days before, he had gone over plans with General William (“Billy”) Mitchell, Assistant Chief of Air Service, for the development of Dayton as a great center for aviation research.

The company that Patterson created literally out of nothing has grown enormously; its last reported gross annual sales figure was a whopping $736,849,000, against $29,000,000 in the last year of Patterson’s life. It has also become highly diversified, producing, in addition to cash registers, accounting machines, posting machines, and electronic data-processing systems.