Many inventions come about because of serendipity. This was the case with an invention that modern day retailers and business owners can’t imagine ever being without…the cash register, and how an accidental innovation transformed the retail industry.

In the mid 1800’s, businessman James Ritty was running a bar in his hometown of Dayton, Ohio. The bar was quite popular and he had many customers, but he didn’t seem to be making the money he thought he should be, considering how busy it was.

He started to suspect his bartenders were stealing cash. The only system he had to keep track back then was a ledger book where sales would be written down. It was very easy for employees to pocket cash without him knowing.

Just by chance, on a European vacation, Ritty happened to visit the engine room of the ship he was on. He saw a machine that counted the revolutions of the propeller shaft and had an “aha” moment. “What if he could use that same design to keep track of sales in his bar?”

When he returned from his vacation he started working with his brother John to design what they would call “The Incorruptable Cashier” or the first cash register.

The first version had a loud bell that sounded every time they made a sale. I remember working in my grandmother’s convenience store and standing on a box to ring up sales. She still used an old register that made that loud sound with each sale.

Even though Ritty came up with a brilliant idea, he wasn’t able to make it a success commercially. But one of his customers did. He bought a controlling stake in the company and renamed it the National Cash Register Company.

Cash registers have changed dramatically since James Ritty’s original idea and an accidental innovation that transformed the retail industry. Today they process credit cards, handle gift cards, scan inventory, etc. Who knows what cash registers will be able to do in the future? What do you think?