The History of Technology in the Alcohol Business

Note: this piece is part of Beverage Dynamics’ celebration of 80 years of publication. Click here for the full 80th Anniversary Feature.

Technology is a major focus in the beverage business. It affects operators on a daily basis. And as tech changes and improves through the years, so too changes the ways that stores do businesses.

Once upon a time, cash registers were mechanical, with sales recorded by hand on paper. How we got from there to employees armed with iPads is a journey through technology’s evolution.

Cash Registers

The “ka-ching” cash register of olden times was invented in the late 19th century by Ohio saloon-owner James Ritty. His motivation was to stop a number of corrupt employees from pocketing cash. “Ritty’s Incorruptible Cashier” became an immediate hit.

Ritter, however, quickly cashed out and sold his patent. After changing hands a second time, it ended up under the control in 1884 of a coal yard manager named John H. Patterson. He forever changed retail transactions by fixing a flaw in the original patent design. Patterson placed a paper roll on the register to record sales on the spot. Thus was born the paper receipt.

Cash registers grew quicker in function with the addition of electric motors in the early 1900s. They then improved only gradually for decades, until IBM rolled out the first computerized POS system in 1973.

POS Software

The electronic cash registers introduced by IBM could be connected to a mainframe computer in each store. This system performed normal checkout operations, plus data collection and dissemination.

A year later in 1974, microprocessors entered into cash-register systems on a large scale, when McDonald’s installed a touch-order system with numeric keys. In 1978, restaurateur Gene Moshel created a primitive POS system that worked on Apple computers.

Graphical POS software came into existence in 1986. Featuring a color graphic touchscreen interface, and driven by widgets, Gene Mosher’s ViewTouch is the grandfather of modern POS.

Such systems became more universally available, and less expensive, in 1992. Martin Goodwin and Bob Henry created the first POS software that could run on Microsoft Windows. Additional developments since — like local processing power, local data storage, cloud computing, enhanced graphics and touchscreen capabilities — have begat today’s POS systems that can run on a series of handheld tablets.

Security Cameras

Theft is an issue common to beverage retail throughout history. An effective service for combating this problem came about in the 20th century, with the spread of closed-circuit television systems.

The brainchild of German engineer Walter Bruch, video surveillance originated in World War II to observe V-2 rocket launches. Since there was no way to record and store information, initial systems required constant monitoring.

The ability to record video material on magnetic tape was developed in 1956 by Californian company Ampex, in order to pre-record Bing Crosby’s TV shows.

VCR technology in the 1970s greatly improved the ability to record, store and replay video. Around the same time, Marie Van Brittan Brown invented the first home security system: four peep-holes, and a camera that could slide up and down to look through each.

The arrival of digital multiplexing in 1990 allowed multiple cameras to record at once, on the same system (it also made motion-only recording possible). This advancement significantly reduced the cost of video surveillance, while greatly improving its capabilities. Consequently, security cameras became an affordable, widespread and effective deterrent to retail theft.

The Internet

The VCR-based security systems of old have been gradually replaced with internet-connected cameras. Of course, it hasn’t ended there — much of beverage retail has
moved online.

The internet traces its roots back U.S. government experiments in the 1950s to build large-scale, secure communication channels via computer networks. One of the results of this, ARPANET, became the backbone of American military and academic network communications by the 1980s. Commercial use spread exponentially in the 1990s.

Advancements in the power of handheld technology in the 2000s allowed the internet to run on Smartphones and tablets. This, in turn, allowed beverage stores to move their POS, security systems, and other operations, onto gadgets that fit in the palm of a proprietor’s hand.

Kyle Swartz is the associate editor of Beverage Dynamics. Reach him at kswartz@epgmediallc.com, or (203) 855-8499, ext. 225.

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