Tuesday, June 2, 2009

NCR to Leave Dayton, Ohio

I was raised in Dayton, Ohio. I left when I went to college years ago and haven't lived there since. But, everybody’s got a home and Dayton is mine.
Factory closings are in the news again, with another wave of suspended operations washing over the country. But, that's not news in Dayton. The lights have been going out there, one by one, for years. But today is special. It is one for the history books.
Several emails came in this morning from fellow former Daytonians giving me the news that The National Cash Register Co., NCR, long the jewel in Dayton's industrial crown, will be moving what's left of it's operation to a suburb of Atlanta, Georgia. At least they're staying in the United States.

When I say the words "Dayton, Ohio", even now, I see leaf-shaded streets with brick or frame homes, parks with kids running in them, churches with the sound of the pipe organ and singing drifting out the open windows. I see a clean, prosperous small industrial city filled with humming factories and busy enterprises. It is a pleasant summer day with the cicadas singing away in the treetops and there's nothing but blue skies clear out to the horizon.

For four years, in the early 1950s, our family lived on Plumwood Road, the first residential street south of the NCR main factory. Common opinion would tell you that having a large factory a only block away would be unpleasant. Not in the least. It was a wonderful neighborhood and NCR was a great neighbor.

The man responsible for building The National Cash Register Co. was John H. Patterson. He built it and shaped it according to his vision until his death in 1922.

No, he didn't invent the cash register. The inventor was a Dayton saloon keeper named James Ritty. Ritty's device was little more than an accounting device. It didn't even have a cash drawer in it. But Patterson recognized that the machine had applications far beyond keeping tally of the number of beers sold. He saw a potential to expand the way Americans do business. And he was right. Patterson took over the company in the mid 1880s and began improving the machines. He built NCR into a massive enterprise. Through most of the last century, even when paying for a pack of gum or cup of coffee, the customer heard a cash register bell at the end of every purchase. The cash register and the simplifications in accounting and book keeping it introduced, allowed for the development of the entire retail business system. It was the hammer and saw of the trade.

John H. Patterson was both a tough-as-nails businessman and something of an capitalist visionary. His concept of Utopia was the polar opposite of that of Karl Marx. Instead of all good coming from The State, in Patterson's view all earthly good comes from commerce and industry.

"A man ought not be employed at a task that a machine can perform," he said. Industrial Capitalism was the way out of the mud. Living in Dayton, even long after his death, we still heard Patterson quoted frequently.

Patterson spoke on behalf of and worked hard to make Dayton a "model city", a city of the future. At least for a few decades he succeeded. I don't think I'm putting too much of a rosy-glow on my memory to say that when I was a kid it was a pretty swell place to be.

The NCR factory was a direct expression of Patterson's thinking.

The buildings, and there are still a couple standing if you happen to be passing through and want to take a look, were architecturally striking in appearance. Until the late 1970s there were acres of them. They were of yellow brick and had giant pained windows that let in lots of natural light and in hot weather they could be opened to let the breezes in. The place had the feel of a college campus; planted with neat lawns, and mature ginkgo trees. Ivy grew on some of the walls. Everything was spotless.
And, if you happen to stop by, take a look at the neigborhood, too. Imagine Plumwood Road filled with kids, the post-War baby boom going full blast. It looks like a nice place to live, doesn't it.

In those years NCR employed over 20,000 people working three shifts. That is a lot of business. Multiply that by the half-dozen other major factories around the city, as well as many mid-size or smaller industrial shops, and you get a measure of Dayton's prosperity at that time.

A book could be written about the Dayton, Ohio of my boyhood and of the years prior, and a serious case could be made that despite it's relative small size Dayton represented a pinnacle of American industry and innovation.

The cash register was not the only thing designed and built in Dayton. Literally hundreds of other creative works came out of that city, things that shaped the world and gave form to the 20th century: the refrigerator and early air-conditioning, the automotive ignition system, the LCD, the pull top can -- and the single greatest invention of the 20th century, the airplane. It took the Wright Brothers five years from scratch, working evenings and weekends in the back of their bicycle shop, to solve the problem of flight. Now, answer this: How does a city, or a nation, grow people who do things like this?

From the mid 19th century and through most of the 20th the business and creative climate in Dayton must have been ideal, so much of what we Americans took for granted was produced there. The place was full of educated, clever, hard-working people. If they weren't born there they moved there. It drew them like a magnet. These were people who could dream up new things to build and then staff the factories and make sure the job got done right.

But times have changed. The business climate in Dayton has packed up and gone elsewhere, likely driven out of town by a combination of forces. And along with it went a lot of those clever, hard-working people.

And now one of Dayton's premier businesses, a shell of it's former self, is leaving town, too.

A corporation is a legally created "body"; a work drawn up by lawyers and given life on paper. A corporation can earn a profit, pay taxes, grow fat in good times, suffer in lean times, and like a human employee, it can pack up it's bags and move to greener pastures.

A couple months ago, while visiting in Dayton, I ran across a quote of Patterson's that I thought applicable to our national situation and I wrote it down. It works in this situation, too, in a way:

"An executive is a person who decides. Sometimes he decides correctly, but he always decides."

Somehow, I don't think the old fellow would be rolling over in his grave if he knew the corporation he built had decided to move. He'd probably be wondering what took so long.


Anonymous said...

I went to grade school right across the street from NCR. Such memories of the noon whistle, of quitting time at 3pm. The sound and smell of the factory. I was proud that NCR was right in my neighborhood. Truly, the end of a long era.

Anonymous said...

Great post Jed, this is the
Dayton I remember also.

Karen said...

There was a labor strike sometime in the late 60's. The guys (no women then) would stand outside the factory around a fire built in 50 gallon drums. I watched from my 6th grade classroom

Plumwood Road said...


This has a salient message interwoven with images that stir human sentiment and give rise to a consideration of the seriousness of our present economic situation.

I suppose NCR had difficulty incorporating the new "cash register model" that consists of touch screen hybrid electronics, internal software providing accounting and data information and mechanical functions.

Your message stirred emotions and initiated serious thoughts of the impact of the constant erosion of our manufacturing corporations becoming obsolete or unable to compete with foreign markets. The core problem is the ongoing policy of large and small companies greedily and for short-term profits taking their businesses "off shore" in fact most of them all the way to China!!

Initially it is done to make instant profits for the stockholders and corporate executives due to low foreign labor costs but this practice will eventually do us all in. China, a communist government is in the position that Japan was in during the 1950's learning from the industrialized American's how to build cars, televisions and other electronic wonders. The former Japanese students of American technology are now teaching us how it should be done with the loss and devastation of our keystone businesses, economy and standard of living. We do not learn from history.

I didn't know about the invention of the cash register as being spawned from Dayton. The pull top can tab has been replaced as well. I guess in Chicago we will have to be satisfied with our inventions of the steel-framed skyscraper, the elevated railway, spray paint technology (Binks) and roller skates. I guess there are some who wish we didn't give rise to canned spray paint technology. I'll have to think more about this as I have lunch at McDonalds, with Twinkies and Cracker Jacks for a snack while playing a pinball machine...all invented in Chicago!

Oh....I forgot the most important one. You and I will probably use it at least 4-times today......."THE ZIPPER!!!!"

I got to get back to work.