Faced with pilfered profits, saloon owner invented the mechanical cash register

James Ritty was inspired by the automatic mechanism that recorded the revolutions of a ship’s propeller.


James Ritty’s Dayton, Ohio, saloon was an unqualified success in the 1870s, but his profits weren’t reflecting that. It was enough to drive a man to drink.

In those days, over-the-counter businesses would put money from transactions in a cash drawer. This easy access for barmen resulted in a lot of employee turnover—and money that was figuratively going where the excess head of a beer goes.

The former captain in the Union Army needed some time away. While on a steamboat vacation to Europe in 1878, he made friends with the ship’s chief engineer and got a chance to tour the engine room.

Always mechanically inclined, Ritty was especially intrigued by the automatic mechanism that recorded the revolutions of the ship’s propeller. One could almost hear the future ring of a cash register’s bell in his head.

Milestone patent

It stood to reason that if there was a device for counting propeller revolutions, there could be a device for counting transactions. Upon returning to Dayton, Ritty immediately began brainstorming with his brothers.

Two siblings had patents: Sebastian, involving items ranging from a wheel to a steam boiler to farm implements; and John, for machines for the hulling of green corn. John’s help was so instrumental that both he and James Ritty are in the National Inventors Hall of Fame for co-inventing the mechanical cash register.

However, arriving at a functional and finished product (before many advances made by others throughout the 1900s and beyond) was an arduous process with so many iterations that the number of attempts is in dispute. The Hall of Fame says the brothers’ third prototype was the one that resulted in U.S. Patent No. 211,360; history-computer.com says that version was the second prototype.

Regardless, the latter information source provides some fascinating detail on the first prototype—basically a keyboard adder, similar to others that had existed around the world for decades. The brothers’ first prototype “looked like a clock with a keyboard. It had two rows of keys along the lower front, labeled with cents in five-cent increments from 5 to 95 cents and dollar amounts from 1 to $9, and had no cash drawer.

“Pressed down, each key represented the individual amount of money to be recorded. The sales were registered on (a) large dial, probably resembling the one on the ship, with two sets of numbers—the outer circle of numbers showed cents and the inner one dollars— around its circumference and two hands operated by the keys.”

Quick sale

The model that was patented on Jan. 30, 1883, “wasn’t all that better” and wasn’t even put on the market, the site continues. The only significant addition was a series of adding wheels mounted in the back of the machine.

In fact, this model did not have a cash drawer. But it recorded the number of sales and the amount of each one, allowing the bar owner to keep track. This was a crucial distinction for James Ritty.

One of the most important later features was a bell that would sound when a sale was rung up, so that the bar owner or person in charge would be alerted to a sale in real time. This became known as “The Bell Heard Round the World.”

But running a saloon and overseeing the cash register business quickly became too much for Ritty. So he and his brother sold all of their interests, including patents, to glass and silverware salesman Jacob Eckert of Cincinnati.

Eckert established National Manufacturing Co. to manufacture and sell the first mechanical cash register. Meanwhile, a Dayton businessman, John Henry Patterson, received a circular that advertised a machine for recording money and sales in retail stores.

He is quoted in history-computer.com as saying: “The price was $100. We telegraphed for two of them, and when we saw them we were astonished at the cost. They were made mostly of wood, had no cash drawer, and were very crude. But we put them in the store, and, in spite of their deficiencies, at the end of 12 months we cleared $6,000.”

Patterson bought controlling interest in the cash registers and their patents for $6,500, according to Cash Registers Online. In 1884, he changed the name to the National Cash Register Co.

Patterson is generally credited with adding a paper roll to record transactions. This became a staple of the machine and produced a receipt.

A market foothold

Patterson’s cash register company was the most dominant in the market through the early 1900s as these ornate, cast-metal cases became ubiquitous in many establishments. Most were brass—these are the ones usually seen in antique stores—but they were also made of wood. Finishes included polished brass, nickel-plate, paint, antiqued copper, and even silver and gold plate.

If James Ritty was the father of the cash register, John Henry Patterson was the father of cash register sales. The company produced only 16,000 registers in its first decade, according to Ohio History Central, but thanks to aggressive marketing and advertising was producing 110,000 annually by 1914.


Other key years in cash register history:

1906: While working at Patterson’s National Cash Register Co., Charles F. Kettering designed a register with an electric motor. He later invented an electric self-starter or ignition for Cadillac.

1972: The Electronic Cash Register was created, providing the first point-of-sale system that handled basic inventory function and could print reports. In recent decades, these have become computerized to feature touchscreen point-of-sale terminals that allow for scanning of items for easy checkouts, and allow customers to process credit cards and gift cards in a one-step operation while allowing merchants to keep inventory of their items.