135 Years with the Cash Register

Let’s take a moment to think about the evolution of the cash register. We will look at what they can tell us about creativity and the desires of our time.

Photo from Wikipedia

Photo from Wikipedia

Early cash registers were bulky, heavy, boxy chunks of metal that filled up countertops. They had tangible buttons, levers, and made loud noises. They were crank-operated. They were incredibly powerful for their times; innovative to the last key mechanism. Early models could even make calculations, such as addition and subtraction, so tellers could give customers the correct change. But that wasn’t the reason they were invented. Wikipedia:

The first cash register was invented by James Ritty and John Birch following the American Civil War. James was the owner of a saloon in Dayton, Ohio, USA, and wanted to stop employees from pilfering his profits. The Ritty Model I was invented in 1879 after seeing a tool that counted the revolutions of the propeller on a steamship. With the help of James’ brother John Ritty, they patented it in 1883.

This secure, unflexible, feature-poor device could excute so little of what a register achieves today.

Photo from Wired

Photo from Wired

What we have learned while reiterating the cash register is that makers and users are partial to something beautiful and simple. When they were originally invented, they existed in a world with very little technology. People had less exposure to the liberal arts and worldy goods on a routine basis.

Beautifying the original cash register was a good idea. Making it intricate and shiny fueled people’s passion for great utility as well as craftsmanship. When you saw a cash register, you valued its thoughtful details and creative essence.

Now, with a high proliferation of design work inundating cultural goods, our minds are on overload with creative designs at every turn. We are thirsting for simplicity—a retreat from the images that scream “Look at me!” More designers are understanding this all the time. We want more things to be more minimal.

Yet the cash register today does so much more than it did 135 years ago.

Joe Darnell

Joe is a UI and graphic designer with prior experience as the creative director for three media-based businesses. Joe’s passionate about web design and graphic design with about 15 years of experience in the media industry. Additionally, Joe is the host of the Top Brew and Techtonic podasts, both featured on iTunes.