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Thursday, March 17, 2011

The Real Treasure of Hico, Texas. A National Cash Register.

At the end of our tour of the Billy the Kid museum in Hico, our hostess pointed out a large brass cash register on the counter. I'd missed seeing it when we walked in.

National Cash Register plays an interesting role in my interest in the history of computers. Thomas Watson, Sr. who was virtually synonymous with IBM through the middle-1950s became a successful salesman working for National Cash Register. He eventually became general sales manager there. The typical IBM biography of Watson describes what happened next along these lines: "Watson had been a top salesman at NCR, but left after clashing with its autocratic leader, John Henry Patterson."

In reality, Watson left National Cash Register under a pretty dark cloud. The story is told in several places including this book:

National Cash Register had a virtual monopoly in the manufacturing and sale of its product, which was becoming increasingly popular among American retailers. Unfortunately, the machines were built so solidly that they rarely wore out. Companies selling secondhand cash registers began to steal business from it.
So, in 1903, Patterson drafted Watson to run an elaborate scam. After ostensibly resigning from the company, Watson set up a chain of used cash register stores that was secretly backed by National Cash Register. By paying more for secondhand machines and selling them for less, Watson drove virtually all of Patterson's competitors out of business. He seems never to have doubted the legality of what he was doing. But when an angry ousted executive started talking to the Justice Department, the scheme figured in a 1912 federal grand jury indictment of Patterson and more than two dozen of his executives, including Watson.
In February 1913, Watson, Patterson and all but one of the other executives were convicted of criminal antitrust violations. Watson, newly married, faced up to a year in prison.
You can sense the "solidly built" nature of the machines from these pictures. This is reportedly a 1910 model. That piece of marble at the base of the brass was used to bounce coins, listening for the true ring of a good coin versus the "clunk" of a counterfeit.

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