Tools of the trade: How an Ohio saloonkeeper came up with the cash register

It was invented to make change—but not the way you’re thinking.
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· 3 min read

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The cash register

  • Patented: 1879
  • Inventors: James and John Ritty

The Incorruptible Cashier: James Ritty owned a saloon in Dayton, Ohio, that always seemed to be busy but wasn’t turning much of a profit. He suspected—in the dubious tradition of scapegoating employees—that his bartenders were putting payments in their pockets instead of the till. But it was just a theory because there was no record of every drink sold.

Working with his brother, John, a mechanic, they invented what would become, by many accounts, the first cash register, securing a patent in 1879. Making its intention to thwart sticky-fingered employees clear, Ritty called it “Ritty’s Incorruptible Cashier.”

It was, in truth, a fairly crude counting machine. It had a dial that resembled a clock face with two arms, for dollars and cents, which tallied cumulative sales. It didn’t calculate how much change customers were owed. This first version didn’t even have a cash drawer. But some reports note it did have a bell, so it was likely to draw a hairy eyeball from the manager when an employee didn’t ring up a sale.

  • Etymology tidbit: The phrase “ring up” likely comes from the tell-tale bell on a cash register, according to Merriam-Webster, which traces the first usage to 1900.

The brothers would barely cash out a couple years later, selling the business (and their patent) for $1,000. The company they sold would eventually become the National Cash Register Company and secure thousands more patents and develop many of the device’s present-day functions, including the ability to print the receipts that never fail to delight and inspire CVS shoppers to this day.

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Party like it’s $19.99: Known as “charm pricing,” it’s the notion that charging $19.99 rather than $20 has an inordinate impact on purchasing behavior because…psychology! But what started the practice, according to Bill Bryson’s book, Made in America, is that owners of the first cash registers realized that charging non-round numbers would help compel store clerks to use the register to make change—and thus record the transactions. Again, these babies were invented to get everything on the books, not to tell Tyler working the register at Wendy’s how much change you’re owed on the $5 you just handed over for that medium Frosty.

Yours for a song: “Money, get away / You get a good job with more pay and you’re okay.” That, of course, is the start of “Money,” Pink Floyd’s 1973 single, but it’s not really the start. That would be the 12 glorious seconds of nothing but an old cash register and coins, recordings painstakingly spliced together in a tape loop in that pre-digital epoch by the band’s Roger Waters.

Pay it fast forward: The company that held the original patent for the cash register is still doing business today, though it never spells out the name anymore: It’s just NCR, or sometimes NCR Payment Solutions. Good luck finding a cash register on its website (except for its history section). NCR is a tech giant for e-comm, digital banking, and mobile point-of-sale, posting revenue of $1.86 billion for Q1, a 21% increase YoY. In other words, the company that drove the cash-register revolution is now—ka-ching!—monetizing the cashless economy.

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