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How the Cash Register Evolved From Abacus to iPad


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Cha-ching! That ringing sound of department stores, retail outlets, local commerce and holiday shopping, cha-ching has been in our sound vocabulary for more than a century. There’s no question about its origin: The cash register. Now cemented in pop culture, the signature sound of a cash register will never die. Well, that is, unless Apple and Posh Spice succeed in destroying it. (More on that later).

Invented in 1879 and patented in 1883 by saloonkeeper James Ritty, the seen-everywhere cash register — still called a “till” by Brits — started as an abacus or counting frame. Cash drawers came next, and when the technology was ready, the devices evolved into the mechanical contraption gracing every brick-and-mortar retail business. While iPads and similar tablets are pushing Ritty’s invention out, the beauty of antique cash registers makes them perfectly suitable as collectibles or for all the Manhattan and San Francisco bars that manage to still be “cash-only.”

Necessity bred the invention of the cash register: Ritty was getting ripped off by his saloon employees.

Dubbed the “Incorruptible Cashier,” Ritty’s invention made it possible for business owners to worry a little less about skimming. His first cash register, the Ritty Model I, reportedly had only one customer: John H. Patterson, a retail coal-shop owner in Coalton, Ohio.

While convincing people to buy actual cash registers was a weakness for Ritty, selling the company patent for a cool grand to Jacob H. Eckert of Cincinnati, Ohio, was not. Eckert, noticing that the Ritty Model I needed a few more features to be marketable, added a cash drawer and tweaked the bell, which now served a dual purpose: Notifying managers the cash register was being opened and giving customers a pleasant sound that enhanced, and tied itself to, the in-store experience.

However ready the cash register may have been, marketing it was still a challenge. Eckert’s National Manufacturing Company (NMC), producing only cash registers that most businesses had no idea existed, was soon capitalized at $10,000 (around $250,000 in today’s money, making NMC an enticing investment). A few years later Patterson took notice, invested $6,500 ($166,000 today) for a controlling interest of the company, and hired enough employees to make four cash registers a week. Patterson still didn’t have a hit on its hands, but the next 15 or so years would prove his investment wise.

From the late 1890s through 1904, Patterson’s company started inventing and patenting the features we think of when we think cash registers. Printed receipts emerged, custom employee drawers with their own bells were added, and the company’s name was changed to the National Cash Register (NCR) company. But NCR wasn’t done yet.

Inventor Charles F. Kettering, hired by NCR straight out of college, took it one step further, creating the first electrically run cash register that was able to perform accounting-like processes that made keeping tabs on transactions even simpler. A credit-approval system, fashioned by combining telephone lines at counters to solenoid-operated stamping machines, allowed a central office to quickly check customer records and extend credit. Kettering, who would go on to work for General Motors and invent an electric ignition for Cadillac, filed 23 patents for NCR, including a model for restaurants that allowed subcategories for food, liquor and cigars.

These additions, included among 2,400 patents filed by 1944, including a magnetic relay, universal AC motor and the ability to subtract, made NCR’s cash register a no-brainer purchase. But people detest change, so Patterson devised marketing and sales tactics, collectively dubbed “The Primer,” that spoke to the importance of information-processing technology, a technique that similar businesses employ to this day. He standardized sales scripts, breaking them down so far as to give salesman not only the words they should use, but instructions on body language and specific demonstration methods.

This scientific-like approach wasn’t new, but it was rare. Patterson regarded changes to the Primer like he did revisions of his cash register, as both needed to be constantly improved to stay relevant. Later, the Primer, combined with frequently asked questions, ballooned from 10 pages to nearly 200 in 1904, before settling on a condensed 56 in 1910. This booklet formed the foundation for many sales techniques still used today.

We all know the rest of the story: Patterson succeeded, every business now uses some form of a cash register, and innovations in technology continue. But in today’s ever-more cashless world, where does the cash register, save for its immortal cha-ching, belong?

While antique cash registers have been described as “authentic pieces of history, appreciating in value every year” and “a unique gift for that person that has everything,” the collectible market is all that’s keeping them afloat. If there’s one thing that separates modern and antique cash registers, it’s the latter’s well-designed beauty. Unfortunately, not even great design can likely save the cash register, as technology has all but replaced them, first with digitally integrated models, then with carry-able options from iPads to wireless, handheld scanners.

Better options began with point-of-sale systems, which is no more than a fancy name for grocery checkouts and retail counters. The POS systems, usually consisting of a cash drawer attached to a computer and printer, were the obvious next step in NCR’s cash register. While easy to operate and almost always connected to a central accounting system, large point-of-sale systems lack the beauty of antique systems, prompting many stores to seek better solutions.

Enter the iPad and similar tablet computers. With an attached card reader and wireless access, these machines are driving the future of retail commerce. Easy to carry, customizable and affordable, these new systems allow transactions to happen anywhere inside stores, allowing owners far greater flexibility in store design. And they look good, too.

Victoria Beckham, a.k.a Posh Spice, doesn’t want any kind of cash register in her U.K.-based clothing stores — she thinks they’re ugly. Thankfully, she’s not completely out of touch, and has opted for tablets to ring up purchases.

But not every transaction can be reduced to a semi-manned iPad. Cash registers have evolved into points of sale where cutting-edge merchants run their entire store from tablets, managing everything from customer accounts to loyalty, inventory, e-commerce and fulfillment from a single POS. While this solution isn’t going away any time soon, it’s not hard to imagine that an iPad or tablet will soon be an available option, using customizable software that can be adapted for grocery stores, restaurants and small business merchants.


Let’s recap: Invented in 1879, popularized over the next 25 years, covering 2400 patents, sold to nervous merchants and displeased retail employees, and long thought to be on the way out, the cash register has been transformed by technological innovations into something that James Ritty would scarcely recognize.

Today’s iPad- or tablet-led innovations have taken some of the best features from antique cash registers (they look great), and POS systems (they’re connected to anything they need via the cloud), they’ve introduced a new wrinkle: Where do people buy their goods if there’s no checkout counter in the store?

The cash register, now called the POS, has been completely dislodged from a fixed position in a merchant’s store, enabling customers to make a purchase from anywhere on the floor.

Apple, whose retail stores generate some of the highest sales per square foot in the country, replaced cash registers with handheld systems, first proprietary and later an iOS-based solution, carried by nearly every employee. Apple also released an app that allows customers to scan and purchase smaller goods, via their personal iOS device.

Today’s software-based POS offerings are bound by nothing but time and engineering skill, which means they can be designed to satisfy the needs of customer and merchants to do business from anywhere. Notice how local retailers are connecting their in-store points-of-sale to e-commerce shops via the cloud, enabling smartphone-distracted consumers to make a purchase whether they are physically inside the shop or not.

Technological disruption is making this an exciting time for merchants globally. While bulky POS systems march toward their inevitable demise, let’s say hello to a shopping world that can handle transactions anywhere, and look good doing it. With that, it’s also time to say goodbye to the legacy cash register, and hello to the future of retail.

Vaughan Rowsell is CEO of Vend, creator of point-of-sale, inventory and customer loyalty software for iPad, Mac and PC. Reach him @rowsell.

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