In 1880 a Mr William Stickney Lamson of Boston, Massachusetts owned a long and narrow shop. In order to get money from the counter at the front of the shop to the cashier’s desk at the rear of the shop he instructed his staff to wrap notes, coins and a receipt in a handkerchief and throw it over the heads of shoppers! As you can imagine this was inaccurate and sometimes dangerous so he looked at an alternative.
In order make the system quicker, Lamson constructed two sets of wooden rails on either side of the shop, one inclined towards the cashier and another towards the shop-front counter. In order to transport the cash, he used hollowed-out croquet balls which he cut in half and added a screw-thread.
This system was so successful that he was asked to make similar systems in other shops so he patented his idea as ‘The Cash Railway’ in 1881. The following year he abandoned his shop and set up the ‘Lamson Cash Carrier Company”. By 1885 the company was exporting to the British Isle. They were quite an attraction and when one was installed at a shop in Sunderland it was officially opened by the Mayor accompanied by several aldermen. The Sunderland Echo reports:
“A customer having made a purchase, the bill and cash are placed in a wood ball and despatched by the high-level line to the cashier who is seated in a raised office. The change is returned in the ball on a low-level line. This is so rapidly effected that the change has been received by the time that the assistant has wrapped the customer’s purchase. The Mayor made the first purchase using the system and expressed high satisfaction saying that it was a most admirable and practical contrivance.”
The company later established the ‘Lamson Engineering Company’ in Uxbridge. London and this outlet was so successful that by 1900 more Lamson railways were being sold in England than in America.
Despite the patient many other companies copied the Lamson Railway so the company developed the ‘rapid wire system’. This was a cylindrical wooden cup with a screw-on base which was projected by a catapult along a taught wire. The new system could project the cup for long distances and even around corners and up-hill!
One of the largest organisations to use the rapid-wire system was the Co-operative Stores Ltd. They bought dozens and the larger stores such as the Co-op in West Street, Lewes had more than one system, whizzing money from different departments to a central cashier. This photo from ‘This England Magazine’ shows Anscombe & Sons in Harpenden where the cashier had to contend with no less than seven wires.
In Eastbourne, the Co-op stores on Albert Parade and in Seaside utilised the rapid-wire system as did the co-op in Newhaven where the one on display at Seaford Museum was formerly used.
Remarkably, the ‘rapid wire’ system was still being made until 1970 when Lamson’s ceased production in favour of the ‘pneumatic cash system’ which had been developed before the war.
This new system used steel tubes to propel cash carriers at speeds of about 30mph. The pneumatic system could stretch for longer that the older wire system and was also used by the military for instance at HMS Forward, the secret Royal Navy base under the Downs near Newhaven. It was used by the large Hannington’s department Store in Brighton and also at Bobby’s in Eastbourne. I not only remember seeing it as a child, I also remember the ‘thwoop’ noise as the cash carriers were sucked away to a central cashier.
The Lamson Company (later Lamson Industries) clearly kept ahead of the game with new innovations. They expanded into making cash registers and by the 1960s started to invest in new computer technology
Cash Railways were used in thousands of shops and offices and even in airports and bingo-halls. I don’t many that are still in use although there is one on display at the Village Stores in Alfriston. Both Seaford and Newhaven Museums have examples of both the Lamson rapid wire and pneumatic systems. Do you know where else you can see them?
The website www.cashrailway.co.uk has more information about cash railways.