It happened today - November 4, 2015

On Nov. 4 of 1880 Ka-ching! The Ritty brothers of Dayton, Ohio patented the first cash register.

I might seem to date myself with that “Ka-ching!” there. Cash register don’t make that noise anymore. They boop and beep and I imagine the youth of today are baffled by the opening of Pink Floyd’s classic song “Money” if they even know what the song is. But the cash register remains characteristically modern.

In the first place, it was ingenious. James Ritty, a saloon keeper, was concerned that employees sometimes pocketed the proceeds of a sale instead of putting it in the drawer. And on a trip to Europe he was fascinated by a device for counting the revolutions of the propeller and somehow got the notion that a similar mechanism could ring up sales.

Ring is the key word. When he got home James and his mechanic brother John invented a device that not only popped open the drawer when you entered the sale amount, they made it ring so they would know when a sale had been made and, more importantly, would notice if someone came and went but no bell rang. The very expression “ring it up” comes from that.

So, annoyingly, does the modern habit of ending prices with .99 or .95 or some such irritating fraction of a dollar. It’s not because merchants think we’re too stupid to grasp that $2.99 is basically three bucks. It was to force the clerk to make change so they’d have to ring up the sale, not just take the customer’s cash, wish them a good day and slip it into their pocket.

The cash register is also very modern in that, once invented, it kept being improved, including adding a paper roll to keep a record of transactions, entirely suited to a bureaucratic age where, as the Who once put it, “In the battle on the streets, you fight computers with receipts”. (The Internet says it’s “fight computers and receipts” but I remember it differently.) And now of course the receipts are increasingly digital in substance as well as sound effect.

I also think it’s characteristically modern in that it’s a response to the impersonal nature of modern commerce. Businesses are too large for owners to have much idea what’s going on at the front of the house, and customers are anonymous so you don’t hear back from your neighbours that they were in the place and start getting suspicious that your staff didn’t mention it or, ahem, put the money in the till.

It seems such a natural way of doing business, whether it rings or boops at you, that it’s vaguely disconcerting to realize that people had been buying and selling for ten thousand years, and using money rather than barter for roughly 5,000, before such a device was either possible or necessary.

We do indeed live in strange times, and not entirely in good ways. Impersonal, enormous, dishonest, bureaucratic and digitized. And we call it progress.