A roundup of the trivial, featuring cash registers, embezzlement, ATMs, mysterious pits, currency, and Transylvanian princes…
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1. The modern mechanical cash register dates to the early 1880s, when it was invented by an Ohio bar owner named James Ritty. Ritty didn’t invent the device to help with bookkeeping, or to organize his cash, or to make giving change easier and less math-intensive, or for any of the other seemingly obvious reasons you’d imagine. No, he invented the cash register because his employees kept stealing from him. The machine was called Ritty’s Incorruptible Cashier. It held and organized money, but that was a secondary feature: the primary benefit was the ding when the drawer opened, warning the boss to monitor the transaction. In other words, the cash register was invented as a surveillance device.
Ritty made little and sold his company, which in 1884 ended up in the hands of John H. Patterson. He renamed it the National Cash Register Company and added a paper roll to record transactions. By this time, there may have been as few as a dozen cash registers actually in use.
Patterson had all the trappings of a stereotypical late-19th century tycoon, but didn’t get the same press as the ones controlling steel, oil, and railroads. Among his innovations was the development of a massive sales army—called The American Selling Force—that was sent, commando-style, into whatever backwater burg Patterson thought needed to be liberated from the shackles of its register-less paper ledger hell. Sales teams would rent out hotel ballrooms, then set up an entire mock store in the room. Prospective customers were taken to the “store,” pitched with a verbatim script, and shown the many benefits of the mechanical cash register—chiefly, employee monitoring and theft reduction.
The sales strategy was effective, and Patterson leveraged his virtual monopoly to ruthlessly buy out, bankrupt, or swamp in lawsuits any potential competitor. By 1911, NCR controlled 95% or more of the US register market and had earned two “Best New Invention” awards (“Opties”) from the American Panoptic Society. Relatedly, in 1912, Patterson and multiple senior executives were convicted of antitrust violations. Later, they were pardoned because Patterson had offered the company’s factory as emergency shelter during a flood.
Patterson was a brute. He was notorious for firing people on a whim; one employee was terminated for riding a horse “the wrong way.” Among the notables caught in Patterson’s unfettered axe-swinging were Richard Kettering (inventor of the automobile starter and namesake of Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center) and Thomas Watson, later founder of IBM. Prior to working at NCR, Watson was a failed salesman who lost his job after his inventory was stolen while sleeping off a drunk. Later he opened a butcher shop and bought a cash register from NCR, somehow parlaying that into a sales job, a sprint up the corporate ladder, a conviction for antitrust violations, and founding IBM. Depending on how far back you want to go, IBM started because a butcher bought a cash register, or because a salesman got drunk, or because the quark-gluon plasma of the early universe cooled, allowing strong and electroweak forces to differentiate, creating the first particles. Proving the old capitalistic saw that you can do no wrong if you make enough money, Patterson somehow gets credit for the future success of the people he fired, with some suggesting that being fired by him was the equivalent of getting an MBA. One day, I hope my mistreatment of others is feted, and to ensure it, I am going to fire as many people working under me as I can, as capriciously as possible.
Here’s another fun cash register thing: Bill Bryson, among others, argues that “odd pricing” or “psychological pricing” —that is, pricing things at .99 instead of a whole number of dollars—resulted not from decades of market research and a canny manipulation of behavioral economics, but from the same desire to monitor employees as the cash register. Ritty’s register could only be incorruptible if it had to be opened, and odd pricing, in theory, ensured that the drawer had to be opened to give change. So we might have X.99 pricing not because consumers are gullible enough to think $1.99 is appreciably cheaper than $2.00, but rather in service of the panopticon.
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2. NCR is still around, and one of the things they make—besides self-checkout lanes, which in a dizzying bit of circularity, require an employee monitor to prevent customer theft—is ATMs. Whence ATMs? In a technical sense, they date to 1960, when the cash-dispensing Bankograph was installed on a trial basis by a New York bank (invented by Luther George Simjian, who later patented a flight simulator, teleprompter, and meat tenderizer, among other things). It didn’t catch on and was removed six months later.
In 1967, an ATM was installed at a Barclay’s in the UK. It didn’t actually dispense cash, though, just vouchers. Customers used a token given by the bank to access their account; the token was mailed back to the customer after the transaction was processed. It took less than a year for someone to lose their token. By 1969, ATMs in Japan and the US were using magnetic stripe cards for access. But while they could dispense cash, they were clunky, buggy, and wildly expensive. Not surprisingly, they weren’t very popular.
The story goes that the ATM tipping point was the result of a lucky break. Citibank spent $160 million on a massive network of ATMs in 1977. When a massive blizzard in early 1978 closed banks for days, ATM usage jumped by 20%. From that was borne the “The Citi Never Sleeps” slogan and public acceptance of our automated future. Final acceptance of ATMs came during the election of 2000, when candidate Al Franken was slingshotted to the presidency via his pledge to eliminate all ATM fees and also to repeal Glass-Steagall so that large insurance concerns could also own banks. I implore you: read Why Not Me if you haven’t already.
By the way, the phrase “ATM machine,” according to a whitepaper released by the Department of Redundancy Department, Tautology Division, is an example of what’s called RAS syndrome, or repetitive acronym syndrome syndrome. Here is a brief list of “brand” names for ATMs in various parts of the US: Presto!, Pulse, Cactus, SHAZAM, and TYME. Fellow Wisconsinites know the shame of asking a non-resident where to find a time machine.
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3. Oak Island covers about 2/10 of a square mile, just a few hundred meters off the coast of Nova Scotia. It also contains—if you believe the legend—a substantial treasure housed in an elaborately conceived and booby-trapped underground vault: the Oak Island Money Pit.
The legend holds that back in 1795 three teenage friends found a depression in the ground on Oak Island and started digging. Two feet down they hit a layer of flagstone not native to the area. Then they hit a layer of wood planks at 10 feet, and every 10 feet thereafter. They stopped at thirty feet. A second excavation a few years later made it to 90 feet, where they discovered a large stone marked with symbols and inscriptions. Along the way, they too had encountered layers every 10 feet or so—theirs were strata of charcoal, putty, and coconut fibres (also not endemic). The pit flooded, and they abandoned the task.
Over the next 200 years, roughly a dozen more large-scale excavation attempts would be made, involving dynamite, massive 70 ton cranes, giant holes, the building of dams, multiple deaths, the discovery of what seemed to be a booby-trapped side cut that flooded the shaft if dug too deep, and the supposed recovery of several links of gold chain, assorted man-made paraphernalia, and blurred photographs of skeletons and treasure. I suggest reading here or here if you are interested in the “ENIGMA OF THE MYSTERIOUS” spooky version of the story, and here for the more plausible.
The Money Pit is accurately named—not because it contains money so much as it is a pit into which one can throw massive amounts of money. And better even than two centuries of people excavating a pit they have no reason to believe contains a massive fortune are the theories about what’s in there and why. By far the most common theory is that the pit holds Kidd’s or Blackbeard’s treasure. Dig deeper and you have claims such as: it holds the treasure from a Spanish galleon, French warship, or British sacking of Havana; the missing royal jewels of Marie Antoinette; the proof that Shakespeare was merely the pen name of Francis Bacon; an assortment of Rosicrucian and Freemason artifacts; the Ark of the Covenant. My personal favorite is that the “pit” is actually an upright Viking ship; the wooden floors they found were merely part of the ship’s interior. No, there’s no explanation for how the ship came to be there, or to have found itself wedged upright and buried.
I only dredged up the Oak Island story because I saw a headline last month that they had found a Roman sword on the island. Great Odin’s raven, I thought, was the money pit constructed by ancient Roman mariners?! Desperate as I am for that preposterous shit to be true, it turns out that the alleged artifact was supposedly uncovered on the island 70 years ago, never mentioned to anyone, then magically turned up again by producers of a History Channel show about the island, who refuse to let anyone else analyze it.
The 1986 Tom Hanks/Shelley Long vehicle The Money Pit is not based on a true story. It rates a 6.3 out of 10 on IMDb.
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4. Some notes about world currency:
- Everyone on Bosnia and Herzegovina’s currency is a poet, except for one novelist.
- Hungary’s currency features two separate princes of Transylvania, each of whom led uprisings against Hungarian monarchy
- Sir James Martin appears on the £100 note in Northern Ireland. He invented the airplane ejector seat.
- Freud appeared on Austria’s 50 Shilling note for 15 years. As did Schrodinger, maybe.
- Auguste Forel was on the 1000 Swiss franc note for 22 years. Forel was known primarily for his landmark study of the social behavior of ants. He was also, briefly, a eugenicist who later joined the Bahai and renounced his earlier views. He also “discovered” the “zona incerta” of the brain, so called because it was a “region of which nothing certain can be said.” Speaking as a brain scientist, the actual zona incerta is all parts of the brain that are contained within the skull. We don’t know what we’re talking about.
- György Dózsa appeared on the Hungarian 20 Forint note for leading a peasant’s revolt.
- From the mixed feelings department: I’m estimating that about 33% of the women on currency are there because they were suffragists.
- Hernando de Soto was on the US $500 bill in the 1920s (!?!?!)
- The first native american to appear on US currency (an 1899 silver certificate) was Running Antelope, an advisor to Sitting Bull. It’s symbolic of, I don’t know, something, that he was featured wearing a Pawnee head dress, because his Sioux head dress was too tall to fit on the engraving.
- The full list of people on currency is here. Be warned it might consume hours of your life.