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Cash Ball system

The Cash Ball system was invented in 1881 or 1882 and manufactured until the 1930s. The cash is conveyed in hollow wooden balls, running along inclined tracks. The top one slopes down from sales point to cashier and the bottom slopes the other way. The gradient is 5/16ths of an inch to the foot. A patent of 1887 mentions ball sizes of 3.25 to 3.75 inches diameter. The system is well described in an article from the Belfast News-Letter of 1885.

According to Lamson trade cards of the 1880s (Ephemera Society of America website), systems were originally leased at a rate depending on the number of stations. The smallest system was four stations at $125 for the first year, an additional station was $10 and a system of 25 stations was $450.

The balls were originally made of boxwood from one block, by hand, and were very expensive. By 1888 they were being made by machine in two pieces from maple or birch and the cost was reduced by 90% (Lowell Daily Courier). In later years it was difficult to obtain replacement balls: Lamsons used to make them at Hythe Road, London out of substandard mangle rollers.

One reported fault of the system was that the ball sometimes fell off the track and broke the counter case below it Murphy, Modern drapery

The cash ball system is described by Mr J. Branch, an employee of Lamson Engineering from 1930 to 1974, in a letter to the Daily Mirror, 11 July 1977, p.20. He says that the track dropped two inches in every 8 feet [which would be 1/4 of an inch per foot]. By using different sized balls and a series of line "switches" [i.e. points in British terminology], it was possible for six to eight departments to use the same track. He lived in Birmingham and the last shop he remembers using the system was the Central Drapery in Smallbrook Street.

As far as I know there are no systems still in use, but there are working systems at Beamish Museum in England and The Up-to-Date Store, Coolamon in Australia.

Cash Ball system at Moons

This photograph shows the 8-station system installed at Alexander Moon Ltd in Galway in November 1894. Note the ball approaching a "switch" (point) - the switch was set by the size of the ball so that it arrived back at the correct sales point. (The picture on the Introduction page shows a controlled switch incorrectly installed on the upper track.) There is a big separation between the outward and return tracks at this end.

In 1965 it was replaced by Paragon Registers and was acquired by Lamsons.
Lamson News, Christmas 1965

Cash Ball system at former Leicester Museum of Costume

Photograph © Leicester City Museums Service, 2001

Immediately in front of the assistant is the lift to raise the ball to the upper track for sending to the cashier. On its return to the service point, the ball drops onto a leather pad (to the right of the hoist). Sometimes a twisted "sock" was used to break its fall - as at Beamish Museum.


Cash ball system in a hosiery department

A cash ball system in the hosiery department of a store, taken from Modern draper (London: Caxton, 1924)

Cash ball lift

A late survivor into the 1970s was Topliss drapers of Louth. This is Miss Lorraine Parrish at the top of the lift to the first floor.

© This England, 1975