Up until the early 1800s, most shops were operated and staffed by the proprietors and their families. Assuming it was done at all, these shops kept track of all transactions using nothing more than simple ledgers. Throughout the 19th century, the stores grew in size and the workdays lengthened, especially in large cities. Many owners were forced to hire clerks from outside the family.

With the proliferation of department stores in the mid 1800s (particularly in the northeastern United States and England) the job of supervising these clerks -- and preventing them from skimming from the cash drawer -- became more and more difficult. In addition, compiling the accounting records (often from inconsistent ledgers) became increasingly frustrating.

The first solution was to have "cash children" -- ah, the days before draconian child labor laws -- carry the sales slip and the customers' money from the wrapping stands to a centralized cash office. There, one of a handful of cashiers (under close supervision from a dependable manager) would record the transaction, count the change and hand the receipt to the runner, who would scurry back to the sales counter tout de suite. You can imagine the problems caused by having dozens of children sprinting down the aisles of a crowded department store. It wasn't the most efficient system by far.

Enter William Stickney Lamson. Lamson ran a five and dime shop called the Rachet Store in Lowell, Massachussetts. He tried to streamline the cash transfer process through a number of means, first by throwing money wadded up in a handkerchief, then later by encasing the money in hollowed-out cricket balls. At first the balls were thrown, later rolled along elevated trackways. Lamson then happened on a device patented by David Brown of Lebanon, New Jersey that utilized baskets running on a wire and pulley system. Lamson installed a version of the cash carrier in his store.

Lamson established the Lamson Cash Carrier Company in 1882, and began selling both the wire-and-pulley and hollow ball systems across the United States. In addition to these two methods, Lamson also began manufacturing pneumatic tube systems and cash registers. In 1884, Lamson licensed the rights to his company's devices for the Eastern Hemisphere to an Englishman, J. M. Kelly.

Within a few years, the US company (renamed to the Lamson Store Service Company, then later to the Lamson Corporation) was the industry leader, and had installed several thousand cash transfer systems in stores across the continent. Lamson's cash register division was bought out, following a few years of bitter competition, by rival National Cash Register Company (NCR) in 1893.

The most common form of the Lamson Cash Carrier was called the "Rapid Wire" system. This system, patented in 1892, used a single wire running from the wrapping stand to the cash office. The money was placed in a wooden cup, which was attached to the wire network. The sales slip was alternately placed inside of the cup, or clipped onto the bottom. The salesperson pulled a lever, which released a catapult spring, launching the cup through the network. Wires would run through walls, and occasionally through the floors to different levels in large stores.

Although much more efficient than previous methods, the Lamson systems had their problems. Firstly, the cups tended to make a whizzing or clicking noise as they passed along the wires. From time to time, the salesperson failed to securely fasten the cups to the wires, which would lead to cups being launched across the store at upwards of 40 mph. More than a few unwary shoppers went home with an unfortunate rap on the noggin. The systems could be found in nearly all JCPenney stores until the 1950s, and were also used in the Marshall Fields stores. Lamson systems were also used at Harrod's in the UK, as well as many department stores in Australia and South Africa (usually manufactured by Lamson subsidiaries).

As (mechanical) computing technology improved, cash registers began to replace the Lamson systems, driving them out of most major department stores by the 1940s. Many stores switched to the pneumatic tube systems, which were much quieter and easier to conceal within the walls of the store. By the 1980s, electronic cash registers (and later bar code scanners) further reduced the need for centralized cashiers, and the system fell out of vogue in the US. A few Lamson systems are still in use, scattered around the globe. The Lamson Corporation (the US arm of the company) was purchased in the 1960s by Diebold Inc, a major manufacturer of ATMs. The UK arm of the company is still in existence (and still manufacturing pneumatic cash carrier systems), now operating under the name DD Lamson PLC.


Sources:
JCPeople, Volume 4, No. 8 (August 2002)
The Cash Railway Website - http://www.ids.u-net.com/cash/
The Dead Media Project - http://www.deadmedia.org/
Inc.com: Cash Flow - http://www.inc.com/magazine/19980615/1088.html
DD Lamson - http://www.lamson.co.uk/
Successful Monopolization Through Predation: The National Cash Register Company - http://economics.sbs.ohio-state.edu/hmarvel/ncr.pdf

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