Monday, January 17, 2005

Adding Machines

I had eaten lunch at a Steak ‘n’ Shake restaurant the other day when I noticed a mistake on the ticket. The waitress had charged me full price for my shake, even though I was supposed to have gotten it at a reduced price with a platter combination.

I told her about the mistake and she apologized and asked me to tell the cashier before I paid the ticket.

When I was ready to check out, I informed the young lady at the cash register about the mistake and she seemed a little puzzled. She had to call her manager over to explain how to subtract the extra amount charged.

I watched as the manager showed her the steps. The instructions went something like this: “First you push this button to let the computer know there’s a coupon. Then push this button for the shake and then push here to get the right price for a platter shake. Then let’s go back and take off the wrong price by pushing here and then here.” Huh?

It’s no wonder the employee didn’t know what to do. It would take weeks of training to learn the intricacies of the Steak ‘n’ Shake cash register.

As most people who read this column know, I love technology and computers. But in some cases, what is meant to make our lives faster and easier just makes them much more complex.

Return with me now to those less than thrilling days of yesteryear when restaurants and grocery stores were equipped with adding machines. That’s right; they had adding machines, not computers, to figure out your bill.

Of course, even in my youth, most supermarkets had electrically-powered cash registers. The old Jay-C store, when it was located in the building that is now the police department, had cash registers with electric motors. When the cashier pushed the large “add” button, the motor would spin and whir and the price of the item would mechanically pop up on the display.

And if she made a mistake, she would just key in the price again and push the subtract button.
Shelby Avenue Market had an even lower-tech adding machine. As a neighborhood kid, I bought most of my goodies (and sold most of my pop bottles) at the store we just called “Ralph’s.”

But when we bought multiple items, Ralph would enter the price of each onto the keypad of his adding machine, and then he would pull a crank that made the gears in the machine add the price to the previous price. To get the total, he would hold down on another button and pull the lever at the same time.

In Elmer Rice’s play called “The Adding Machine,” set in the 1920s, there is a dispirited accountant named Mr. Zero who fantasizes about adding machines of the future. In it, he dreams he might one day, “sit in the gallery of a coal mine and operate the super-hyper-adding machine with the great toe of my right foot.”

It wasn’t being operated by anyone’s toe, but the very first time I saw an electronic cash register that allowed the cashier to push a button with the name of the item on it instead of having to key in the price was at, yes, Steak ‘n’ Shake. It was sometime in the mid-1970s in Indianapolis.

I was surprised and quite impressed with this new-fangled “super-hyper” adding machine. It even printed out what I had ordered on my receipt.

Of course, these days, nearly all stores have code-reading laser scanners to read the prices. And the receipts have all the details anyone might need, include the item name, the date, time, who your cashier was, and how much you saved with coupons. I’m surprised they don’t tell your fortune as well.

They are great pieces of technology for the consumer. The trouble is, unlike the old adding machines, they have a pretty big learning curve for the people who have to run them.

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