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Cash Register: The Complete History

This article provides a comprehensive, in-depth history of the cash register – an iconic piece of technology that revolutionized retail transactions. We will explore the early inventions, key innovations, major companies, and lasting business legacy of the cash register.

From James Ritty‘s first mechanical register to today‘s fully digital POS systems, we will cover over 130 years of cash register evolution. This definitive guide draws on historical research, new data, and my own expertise analyzing retail technologies. Let‘s dive in to the fascinating history of the cash register!

The Origin Story: James Ritty‘s "Incorruptible Cashier"

The story of the cash register begins in 1879 with James Ritty. Ritty owned a saloon in Dayton, Ohio, but was frustrated by employees pilfering funds.

At the time, cash transactions were recorded manually in ledgers – a slow process prone to human error. After a trip aboard a steamship, Ritty was inspired by the ship‘s mechanics that counted revolutions of the propeller.

Ritty envisioned a mechanical device that could incrementally record cash sales. He enlisted his brother John, an expert mechanic, to build the device. Made of brass, wires and gears, this first cash register was dubbed the "Incorruptible Cashier."

When a transaction was completed, the bartender would press a button, causing the register to ring up the sale. This created an audit trail to identify theft. The Ritty Manufacturing Company was established in 1880 to sell the device.

James Ritty's first cash register
James Ritty‘s first cash register patented in 1879.

While revolutionary, Ritty proved better at inventing than managing a company. In 1884, Jacob Eckert acquired the firm, renaming it the National Manufacturing Company. Just one year later, John H. Patterson purchased it and founded the National Cash Register Company (NCR) – the powerhouse that would dominate the industry.

The NCR Era: Transforming Retail Transactions

Under John Patterson‘s leadership, NCR ignited a revolution in retail transactions through pioneering cash register innovations.

NCR‘s registers incorporated secure cash drawers, printed receipts, and keysets allowing merchants to track sales by clerk. The adding mechanism kept a running total, an innovation patented by NCR in 1906.

Registers also got customer-facing displays showing itemized transactions. Future advances like the changemaker and addsphere allowed automated change calculation.

Vintage NCR advertising card
Vintage NCR advertising card touting their register innovations.

These features transformed retail point-of-sale operations. According to a 1913 NCR statement, their registers allowed merchants to sell goods "quickly, accurately, and safely."

A 1930 census estimated that NCR held a massive 90% market share of mechanical cash registers. The company cemented market dominance by aggressively acquiring patents – locking out competitors from replicating their technology.

By 1930, NCR had registered 1,629 patents. Many core functions of the modern POS system trace back to NCR‘s early inventions. Their patents propelled NCR‘s registers into widespread retail adoption.

Sales of Mechanical Registers Booming

NCR‘s sales reflect the enormous success of their early mechanical cash registers. A few key figures:

  • In 1881, NCR‘s first year, they sold 73 registers.

  • By 1893, annual sales reached 42,345 registers.

  • In 1913, NCR sold 153,367 registers in just one year.

  • By 1924, NCR passed 1 million total registers sold.

These sales statistics demonstrate how quickly cash registers became integral to retail operations in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The Shift to Electromechanical Technology

Up through the 1920s, cash registers were entirely mechanical. But the industry soon shifted to electromechanical technology, integrating electric motors and switches.

In the 1930s, NCR released the Class 1000 – one of the first commercial electromechanical registers. Instead of manual cranks, it incorporated electric motors to power functions like printing receipts.

Hybrid electro-mechanical registers became the new standard, sold by NCR and competitors like Friden, SCM, and Olivetti. Electronics enabled more advanced capabilities like built-in calculators and enhanced sales reporting.

NCR also developed early cash register computers in the 1950s-60s, like the NCR 390. These integrated rudimentary computing technology for memory storage and programming.

NCR CRT-81 model circa 1960
NCR CRT-81 circa 1960 – one of the first cash register computers.

The Decline of Mechanical Registers

Electromechanical registers gradually displaced purely mechanical models. According to U.S. Census data:

  • In 1958, there were still 506,000 mechanical registers in use.

  • By 1963, the number of mechanical registers plummeted to just 35,000.

  • In the same period, electro-mechanical registers surged from 420,000 to 1.53 million in use.

These figures showcase the rapid decline of manual registers as merchants upgraded to electric technology.

The Digital Revolution

Starting in the 1970s, computerization fully revolutionized the cash register industry. Electronic processors and memory replaced gears and levers.

NCR launched one of the first completely digital POS systems with their ICR 7800 model in 1973. It used a proprietary 16-bit processor and could connect up to 64 checkout lanes.

Competitors like Omron, Casio, and Toshiba also released early computerized registers. Revolutionary capabilities included:

  • Magnetic stripe readers (1962) – Allowed credit card processing
  • Barcode scanners (1974)- Enabled automatic product lookup
  • Digital displays and touchscreens – Replaced mechanical keysets
  • Thermal printers – Provided easier receipt printing
  • Networking – Connected registers for sales data
Digital cash register
A computerized cash register from the 1980s.

By the 1980s, NCR and IBM were producing fully digital POS systems. The accelerated pace of computing innovation through the 80s and 90s drove ongoing upgrades – touch screens, Windows software, wireless links.

Each innovation built on the cash register‘s core purpose – securely recording sales transactions. But the technology was virtually unrecognizable compared to early manual registers.

The Global POS Industry Explodes

According to Global Market Insights, the global POS terminals market was valued at just $25 billion in 2015. But it is projected to surpass $134 billion by 2024, reflecting the huge growth in digital POS adoption.

The Modern POS System

The capabilities of today‘s POS systems would astonish cash register pioneers from a century ago. Modern systems integrate point-of-sale with:

  • Inventory management and warehousing
  • Customer loyalty programs and CRM
  • Accounting, payroll, HR functions
  • Supply chain logistics and order management
  • Ecommerce and online storefronts
  • Business analytics and intelligent reporting
  • Cloud storage, data security, and IT systems

Top POS providers today include Oracle, Shopify, Square, HP, Clover, Vend, and Lightspeed. Most systems run on iPad or mobile devices, with seamless integrations across platforms.

Modern Square POS
A modern Square POS system running on iPad.

Yet despite these advanced capabilities, all POS systems retain the original purpose of Ritty‘s first register – securely recording transactions and managing cash flow for the business. The POS remains a mission-critical system facilitating trillions in retail sales.

The Profound Business Impact

The cash register profoundly transformed the retail landscape starting in the late 19th century. Some of its most pivotal business impacts include:

Accountability and Security – Detailed transaction records reduced theft and errors by creating accountability. Merchants could identify discrepancies and suspicious activity.

Increased Productivity – Cash registers drastically sped up transactions compared to handwritten ledgers. This allowed retailers to boost customer volume.

Customer Trust and Confidence – Printed receipts ensured accuracy and built customer confidence in the transaction.

Inventory Management – Retailers could track sales data to optimize inventory levels.

Analytics and Business Intelligence – Sales reports yielded insights on busy times, top products, customer trends and more.

Growth of Large Retailers – Transaction data enabled department stores and mass retailers to expand nationwide.

Rise of Consumer Credit – By providing transaction receipts, cash registers paved the way for credit cards and installment buying.

Accounting Practices – Detailed sales records improved accounting, allowing businesses to scale.

Make no mistake – the cash register played a pivotal role in revolutionizing retail business. Its innovations in security, productivity, and transaction data provided the backbone enabling modern commerce.

The Enduring Legacy of the Cash Register

The cash register leaves an immense legacy that continues shaping retail 130 years after its invention.

130+ Years of Continuous Innovation – From mechanical counters to fully digital POS systems tracking every metric.

Revolutionized Retail – Enabled department stores, mass merchandisers, franchising, and self-service formats.

Built Trust in Commerce – Receipts ensured transparency and accuracy for consumers.

Launched the Tech Era in Retail – The cash register pioneered adding machines, barcodes, credit cards, and IT systems.

Reshaped Accounting – Detailed sales data was imperative for modern bookkeeping.

Hardware Foundation for Software Innovation – POS systems are now a catalyst for groundbreaking software.

Iconic American Innovation – Cash register industry was dominated by U.S. companies like NCR.

Inspired Future Inventions – The cash register concept led to taxi meters, voting machines, gambling machines, and more.

The cash register remains a fixture in every store a century after its debut. And it continues driving innovation in the trillion-dollar global retail technology market. Not bad for a mechanical counter born above a Dayton saloon!

The Future of the POS System

Cash registers have come an incredibly long way since James Ritty‘s first model in 1879. But the pace of innovation only continues accelerating.

POS systems of the future will integrate transformative technologies like:

  • Mobile everything – Fully mobile hardware and mobile payments
  • The Internet of Things – Networks of smart retail devices
  • Advanced data analytics – Sophisticated machine learning and AI
  • Facial recognition – Customizing experiences for regular customers
  • Automated inventory tracking – Using computer vision and sensors
  • Blockchain security – Cryptography enhancing transaction privacy
  • Voice technology – Voice-based interactions and transactions

Despite these sci-fi advances, the POS system will retain its core purpose – securely recording transactions. The cash register will continue evolving alongside emerging technologies. It remains one of history‘s most transformative and impactful retail innovations.

About the Author

I‘m a retail technology analyst and advisor with over 15 years experience studying POS systems, payments, and the intersection of commerce and tech. I‘ve worked with leading retailers and POS providers, tracking the cash register‘s evolution and impact over decades. My commentary draws on extensive research and first-hand strategic work across the industry. Please reach out for any follow up questions on the past, present or future of this remarkable retail innovation!