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The humble beginnings of the cash register

Friday - 3/22/2013, 6:04pm  ET

In this Friday, Feb. 15, 2013, photo, a sales staff member at Barney's New York uses an iPod Touch to help a customer make a purchase, in New York. Stores across the country are ditching the old-fashioned, clunky cash registers and instead having salespeople _ and shoppers themselves _ checkout on smartphones and tablet computers. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)

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NEW YORK (AP) -- Imagine a store without a cash register and no other accurate ways to quickly tally up daily sales. That was the case for all retail establishments before the 1880s. Most store owners were left in the dark about whether they were making a profit or loss -- and many suffered since it was easy for sales clerks to steal from the cash drawer.

That all changed with the invention of the cash register following the Civil War by a little-known saloon owner, setting into motion decades of innovation. Here, a look at the history of the cash register and some highlights at NCR, formerly known as the National Cash Register Co., which helped to make the machine ubiquitous at stores across the country starting in the early 1900s:

--1879: James Ritty, a saloon owner in Dayton, Ohio, patents a machine with a mechanism that's inspired from the apparatus that counts the spins of an ocean liner's propeller in its engine room. The so-called "incorruptible cashier" was the first mechanical cash register and had metal keys with denominations pressed into them to indicate the amount of the sale. There was a bell to ring up sales.

--1880-1883: Ritty's mechanical register catches the attention of John H. Patterson, a businessman, who purchased several machines for his general store in Coalton, Ohio. He buys several more for his retail coal business in Dayton, Ohio.

1884: Patterson bought the rights to Ritty's invention from Jacob H. Eckert, who had purchased the rights from Ritty. The price: $6,500. He renamed the company the National Cash Register Co. from the National Manufacturing Co. and started to put the registers into production. That company is now known as NCR, the global technology firm.

1888-1895: Eighty-four companies sell cash registers but only three actually survived long-term. Patterson, who aggressively bought out his competition and had a flair for sales, sets up an inventions department to create bigger and better thief-proof registers. He opened the first training program for his sales people.

1902: The cash register offers shopkeepers cumulative totals and can give an audit trail of transactions. That helps businesses collect market research data.

1906: Charles Kettering, researcher for the National Cash Register Co., designs the first register powered by an electric motor.

1915: The cash register, dressed in fancy cast-metal cases, became an essential tool in nearly every retail establishment. The registers were made of different materials including brass, cast-iron and wood. National Cash Register ran the largest brass foundry in the world during that period. By 1915, more than 1.5 million cash registers were sold.

1960s: The retail industry shifts to electronic registers.

Early 1970s: National Cash Register introduces the first cash register that's part of the store's entire computer system. At the same time, National Cash Register introduces a bar coding scanning system to be used with the machine.

1974: The National Cash Register changes its name to NCR Corp. It makes the first bar code scanners.

1991: NCR acquired by AT&T

1994: NCR name changes to AT&T GIS by the end of 1996.

1995: AT&T GIS changes its name back to NCR Corp. in anticipation of being spun off to AT&T shareholders by January 1997 as an independent, publicly traded company.

1998: NCR installs first self-checkout system at a Ball's Hen House grocery store in Kansas City, Missouri.

2003: Self-checkout areas become mainstream at many grocery stores and other discounters.

2012: NCR launches a new software program that runs on Apple's iPad that's connected to the keyboard at the cash register counter or can be detached and used as a mobile checkout device.

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Source: NCR Corp. and Museum of American Heritage


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