My overall interest in computing equipment kicked into high gear when the Ames Discount Department Store chain opened in my hometown. It was September 1978 when the store opened, and I remember shopping there on opening day. To handle the crowds, several temporary checkout lanes had been installed near the exit of the store. These supplemented the four regular checkout lanes and the service desk.

At the time Ames was still using mechanical cash registers with inventory tracking capabilities. When the store opened it looked like some of the cash registers were not new. Some were darker in color than the others. After a few visits and my typical study of receipts, I found differences there too. While many of the receipts had a header and footer that THANK YOU and CALL AGAIN (very generic), some of the older registers printed an old Ames logo that looked like kids building blocks.

The cash registers were made by Sweda and resembled this register I had a couple of years ago.

There were a couple of differences from the register shown in the photo. First of all, Ames utilized a three digit class system for their inventory, so the fourth row of inventory numbers on the right side (positions 1000, 2000, and 3000) did not exist on the Ames registers. Instead, there was a second “Mdse Number” button where the 3000 button is shown above.

If you look on the left hand side of the register, you’ll see a small plastic window. The mechanism on that side of the register punched a data tape. Here’s a sample in a photo from Wikipedia. These registers used the narrower version of the tape shown on the left.

As cashiers rang up items they would enter the three digit class number on the left side of the keyboard and the amount of the item on the monetary keys. Other department stores did the same thing with Sweda registers, but the stores we frequented that also used this type of cash register usually had two-digit department numbers instead of the three numbers used by Ames.

In some instances, usually with clothing purchases, Ames tracked that inventory with “double pass” items. This is when the two modifier keys were used. For example, a garment might be marked 112 237 and the price. The cashier would press the top modifier key and punch in 112 with no monetary amount and hit the motor bar. The cashier would then press the bottom modifier key and punch in 237 and the price of the item.

I believe the use of the modifier buttons punched a special flag on the punch tape, perhaps indicating the “beginning” and “end” of the data for an item sold. I don’t believe the sale amount was recorded on the tape; a cursory inspection of the cash register I had seemed to indicate only inventory information was punched into the tape. On the rare instance that I was able to get my cash register to ring something up it would only punch four characters on the tape when ringing up an item.

The data tapes would be removed on a periodic basis and sent to a processing center. The spools of tape in the register were very long.

The cash registers were incapable of subtraction, so if an item was rung up wrong, the cashier would total out the sale and start over, saving the first receipt to be voided. This where the red VOID key was used. They’d ring the sale up all over again under the VOID key instead of the A key. It was then up to the managing team to take VOID totals and do the necessary math in the back office to balance the cashier’s drawer. I’m sure the data tape was also punched to indicate it was a void, which would put that inventory back into circulation.

Years ago I read a newspaper article about the Zellers chain in Canada; they had “triple pass” items where three codes were entered for an item.

Each of the registers at Ames were numbered with a unique number that appeared on the receipt. I remember Register 1 would print “984” up the right hand margin of the receipt. One of the older registers printed “017”. After a few visits I was able to determine which register belonged to what checkout lane. On the rare occasion a cash register was swapped out (due to mechanical issues or whatever), I’d have to figure out which checkout lane the register belonged to.

Ames held onto these mechanical Sweda registers into the 1980s. When Ames bought the Big N chain a year or two after the store opened in our town, we visited a former Big N that had been turned into an Ames. They did not have Sweda registers but instead ran with the venerable NCR Class 5 machines. The Class 5 registers also punched a tape and all of the same class number practices were in place. The only difference was the NCR Class 5 registers printed a “TX” (for tax) indicator on the receipt; the Sweda registers just showed tax as another item. Class 900 was used on both types of machines.

When Ames made the leap to electronic cash registers they moved to the IBM 3680 system with IBM 3683 and 3684 cash registers. I’ll be writing about that in a future blog entry.

Incidentally, the Sweda cash registers at a nearby Jamesway department store were inherited from the regional chain they purchased, which was called Westons. I remember going to Jamesway after the change over and seeing they were using the same registers. Something had been modified to prevent the “Westons” named being printed on the receipt but otherwise they worked identically to the way Westons had originally ran the inventory.

Computerized inventory with mechanical cash registers. I find the approach to be quite ingenious considering the equipment available at the time.

Found through a Google search.

When my interest in cash registers became apparent to my mother and grandmother, they began purposely saving receipts so I could study them. If in attendance at the time of checkout I would associate the keystrokes I had observed the cashier doing on the cash register with the actions I saw printed on the receipt. Luckily, I have a very good memory and after one or two passes through a checkout I was able to memorize the layout of a cash register keyboard for that particular model in a particular store. As time goes on I can’t remember the keyboard layouts like I used to, but I do remember differences from store chain to chain and I mostly remember where the most important buttons (SKU, TOTAL, CASH TEND) were located.

I found the receipt shown above when doing some research on Bradlees back in the day. Being a native of Central New York, I wasn’t introduced to Bradlees until I moved to the greater Boston area in the latter half of the 1980s. However, when I saw this particular Bradlees receipt online I immediately knew what kind of cash register had generated the receipt, it was an electronic point of sale system by Sweda, the same system used by the nearby Two Guys when I was a kid.

Two Guys moved into the former W.T. Grants at the Northern Lights Shopping Center in North Syracuse, N.Y. in the mid 1970s. I remember it feeling like it was a big deal because the Grants building would no longer be empty and Two Guys was an up and coming department store chain from downstate and New Jersey.

Image courtesy of SyracuseNostalgia.com

The distinct font found on the receipt generated by the Sweda POS system made it easy for me to identify which stores were using that system. Sweda was easy for me to remember, there were tons of Sweda mechanical cash registers in the various department store chains in the area. This was the first time I remember seeing an electronic Sweda cash register.

I don’t remember a lot outside of the distinctive print from the register. I have a hazy memory of the registers having two drawers and the Cash Tendered key being up in the upper left hand corner of the keyboard, one marked “A” and one below it marked “B”. As far as the accuracy of that hazy memory, well that’s anyone’s guess.

Sweda did not make a huge splash in the electronic cash register business and they were quite rare to find when visiting various stores. NCR, IBM, and Data Terminal Systems were all much more prevalent from my point of view in Upstate New York, however, I did encounter some Sweda scanning systems at Quality Markets in Western New York, though without the distinctive font shown on the receipt above. Shaw’s in Massachusetts also used Sweda scanning systems around the same time.

The only photo I’ve been able to find of one of these Sweda machines is shown in this photo from a Two Guys closing sale in 1980. If you look in the lower right hand corner of the photo you can see a Sweda cash register, the housing being rather distinctive and fitting the design language of standalone Sweda registers of the time.

Photo courtesy of The Morning Call.
Photo courtesy of “Remembering Hills Department Store” Facebook group.

I am not in the photo shown above. I am, however, old enough to remember when the cash register you see in that photo was brand new. In fact, I’m old enough to remember when all the department stores and supermarkets were still using mechanical cash registers. Except for Sears. I don’t ever remember seeing a mechanical cash register at Sears; they had already migrated to one of the first computerized point of sale systems in the United States. It was made by Singer-Friden. More on that in a future post.

The cash register you see in use above is an NCR 255. It is being controlled by two NCR 726 Minicomputers in the back office. While the NCR 255 was capable of scanning, at the time scanning was found only in some progressive supermarket chains. It would be a little while before scanning became standard operating procedure at your local grocer; and it would be even a little longer before Walmart led the way to bring scanning to the discount department stores and other merchandise vendors across the land.

I am a software developer by trade. I have always been interested in technology and what led me into technology to begin with was the blossoming field of computerized point of sale and cash register equipment in the 1970s and 1980s. It wouldn’t be until the mid 1980s that I would actually use (and in some instances, program) this equipment, but I knew the ins and outs of how these devices worked before I was a teenager. If there was appropriate testing back in the day I’d probably be pegged for some sort of spectrum, and cash registers and the like were my primary focus. I knew how they worked, I could tell the differences between systems just by a receipt, and I knew I wanted to play with computers for the rest of my life.

This blog is born from my personal blog elsewhere on the Internet. I have a lot of information to share, mostly based on memory, some anecdotal, and even more from research I’ve been doing. There’s not a lot of information on the Internet about these early systems, but I’m always on the search for anything I can find. Operator’s manuals. Memories and anecdotes from others. Anything I can share because I know I’m not alone in this interest. I’ll be categorizing my entries by store chain and equipment manufacturer. I’ll also be adding an area for document sharing.

Thanks for stopping by. I look forward to adding more information soon.

In the meantime, here’s what a receipt from the NCR 255 would have looked like. This receipt is also courtesy of the “Remembering Hills Department Store” group on Facebook.

The paper appears yellow from the scanner used to save this image digitally.