Cash and Credit Registers

A selection of cash registers exemplifying their technological development from 1878 until 1970.

As American business expanded in the second half of the 19th century, and cash transactions replaced barter, shopkeepers took steps to secure their money. Slips recording transactions could be entered in account books. Safes and locked cash drawers offered protection against intruders. Azel C. Hough combined these features in the Hough Security Cash Recorder, a device he made in the 1890s. Variations in such machines sold as autographic registers. Some manufacturers, such as McCaskey, made filing systems strictly for recording credit granted.

It was hard to keep clerks from pocketing some of the cash they received. By the late 19th century, counters that tracked the number of revolutions of the shaft of a machine were widely available. James J. Ritty, a pub owner from Dayton, Ohio, reportedly saw a counter used to count the revolutions of the propeller of a ship on an Atlantic voyage in 1878. He thought that if one could count the revolutions of a machine part, one could count money coming into a business.  On his return to Ohio, he enlisted the mechanical skills of his brother John to design and build what they dubbed a cash register. Their prototype machine had a large, clock-like face and a row of keys for entering  amounts from 5 cents to 95 cents (by fives) and from $1 to $9. A mechanism inside the machine recorded total sales.

The Ritty brothers patented an improved form of this cash register in 1878. In their first commercial model, sold as “Ritty’s Incorruptible Cashier,” they replaced the recording mechanism with a paper tape, and introduced pop-up numbers to indicate sales. Finding few customers, they sold their rights to the machine 1881. The new owners added a cash drawer, but were no more successful. Then, in 1884, John H. Patterson, who had been one of the Ritty brothers’s first customers, bought the business and renamed it the National Cash Register Company. NCR soon dominated the cash register business, although a few competitors also joined the fray.

Mechanical cash registers improved steadily over the years, with the addition of features like an adding mechanism for individual sales (the first cash registers only recorded total amounts received); printed receipts;  machines with several drawers, one for each clerk in a department store; and, in a few high priced machines, automatic change making. Not long after the advent of desktop electronic calculators in the 1950s and 1960s, electronic cash registers became available. These generally were made in Europe or Japan, although a few were manufactured in the United States. By the 1970s, they dominated the market.

By the early 1970s improvements in lasers made possible new equipment for tracking merchandise. RCA developed an “automatic checkout stand” that was tried for several months in 1972 at a supermarket near Cincinnati, Ohio. By 1974, a committee of executives had developed a Universal Product Code. Products coded with these bar codes were first sold at Marsh’s supermarket in Troy, Ohio, in June of that year. IBM, NCR and other manufacturers soon sold point-of-sale terminals combined with checkout scanners. These fed information about purchases into computer systems. They became common in grocery and department stores across the country, making it possible to keep closer tabs on stock while reducing the number, training time, and pay of clerks.