American business history is replete with sad stories of men who had imagination but not quite enough. Take the example of shopkeeper James S. Ritty, who struggled with all sorts of impediments in his hometown of Dayton, Ohio, about 100 years ago.
Dayton, in these developing days of the American Midwest, was no thriving metropolis, and retailers such as Ritty had to hustle for every bit of business.
He also had to contend with his hired help. In the 1870s employes or clerks who sold merchandise to customers utilized a cash drawer for receipts. Too often employes took money from the drawer when the boss was not looking. Like shoplifting today, this practice required passing on costs to customers who might be inclined to venture to stores with lower prices and honest clerks.
Ritty was determined to short-change the crooks. In collaboration with his brother, he came up with the first cash register, and on Nov. 4, 1879, received a patent. Ritty was ecstatic over his "incorruptible cashier," as he dubbed the device.
Unlike contemporary models, it had the primary purpose of attracting everyone's attention when it was operated. Each time a clerk opened the machine a loud bell or gong sounded to herald the event. Of course, the register had features that would assist in the recording of sales, but its conspicuous feature was to keep all eyes front and center when the bell went off, much in the fashion of a burglar alarm today.
Although Ritty's invention solved the matter of crime in his own shop, it did not spread like wildfire to other stores with pilfering problems. For one thing, clerks in Dayton put up a fuss that one of their perks would disappear. Also, the cash register was expensive. A company set up by Ritty to manufacture the device had to charge $50 per machine to make an honest profit. But $50 gave rise to sticker shock, and Ritty's National Manufacturing Company by 1884 looked on hard times. His 13 employes worked in a plant in a rundown section of the city. What was worse, Ritty's great venture was the object of ridicule.
So much so that when John Henry Patterson from a nearby community bought Ritty's firm in late 1884, the guffaws from the townspeople led him to try to get Ritty to renege on the deal, with a $2,000 sweetener to Ritty for his trouble. Ritty refused.
And so Patterson chose to put his act together and make his new company--renamed the National Cash Register Co.