NCR was truly a "hometown" enterprise from the start. One Daytonian had invented the product, and another perfected a superb organization to manufacture and market it. Furthermore, almost no one in Dayton had family roots in the community that were deeper and older than those of John H. Patterson. Along with the Wright brothers and Paul Laurence Dunbar, NCR did more than anyone or anything to put Dayton, Ohio "on the map" at the beginning of the 20th century. The photo to the right shows a young NCR engineer, Charles F. Kettering, and another employee working to develop an electric-powered cash register in 1906.
Despite the strong sense of mutual identity, all was not well between Dayton and NCR in the first decade of the new century. Ever since 1896, when he made a speech, "What Dayton Needs to Do to Become a Model City," Patterson had complained about the city's shortcomings and the failure of its civic leaders to do more to correct them. His ideas were typical of those historians have identified as "business progressives." Some of them had to do with improving conditions in the city as a whole, while others were more specifically concerned with changes that would directly benefit NCR.
Meanwhile, local residents observed not only a prosperous and growing company, but also the eccentric, autocratic, and sometimes downright bizarre behavior of its founder and president. Patterson hired and fired top executives with reckless abandon, embraced faddish food and exercise regimens, and expressed frank opinions on anything and everything. (One of the men he fired, Thomas Watson, went on to make IBM one of the world's premier corporations. He freely acknowledged copying some (not all) of Patterson's business techniques.) At one point Patterson insisted that all of his managers and professionals join him in morning horseback rides. This led to one breaking his leg, another dying from an accidental fall, and nearly led to the firing of a young engineer with great promise, Charles Kettering, whose brilliance lay elsewhere.
NCR Threatens to Leave Dayton
By 1906 John Patterson began to talk openly about how he might have to pull NCR out of Dayton and relocated in an eastern city like Buffalo or Schenectady, N.Y. where his company would be more appreciated. He maintained that skilled workers, engineers, and salesmen would not move to Dayton, with its lack of "progressive spirit." No doubt he was probably bluffing all the time, perhaps to win certain specific concessions from the city fathers, perhaps just a pique of temper. But many took his threats seriously for a time, as he put on quite a display of his intentions. Mass meetings were held with employees, visiting delegations arrived from Buffalo and other cities, and Dayton's leaders were invited to tour the magnificent factory complex that just might pull up stakes and leave.
Feuding with James M. Cox and the Dayton Daily News
Several of Dayton's newspapers took Patterson's bluster seriously, but one did not. James M. Cox, the future Ohio governor (1912-14, 1916-20) and Democratic presidential candidate (1920), published the Dayton Daily News. He, too, saw himself and his paper as active promoters for change and improvement in Dayton, including the rights of organized labor and consumers. Believing that the eccentric Patterson was merely bluffing, he chose satire and ridicule to bring home the point. The following "advertisement" paid for by the (non-existent) "Dayton Protective Association" appeared in the Daily News on March 11, 1907:
Come Out! Come Out!
Grand Meeting at the Glue Factory
Thursday, March 21, 1907
Garden lunch with hot tea and hot air.
Speeches, music, songs, recitations, exclamations, balloon ascensions
and thirty-three kinds skits and music, Moving day pictures by patent perpetual
motion picture working backwards.
A few more dead men will be dragged out of their graves and placed on
exhibition for the honor and glory of greater Dayton. Everybody must wear white
shirts and standing collars. Visitors will be searched by the guides, and those
wearing striped shirts or cotton underwear will be kicked over to Goose Island.
The president will tell when, how, where, and what his reasons are for
permitting himself to remain one week in this reduction plant climate, where the
malaria bugs sing in the gloaming and the drinking water is so thick with 4000-
legged beasties that he is compelled to quench his thirst with a knife and fork.
"To Buffalo and Back" will be sung by the Glee club, and the Cuckoo Club
will swell the chorus of peace and good will to all mankind. Incidentally, the band
will play that sweet, soul-stirring romance, written in J sharp for all the flats, enti-
tled, "Dayton is a Rotten Old Town."
Come Out! Come Out!
THE GLUE FACTORY
An outraged Patterson sued Cox for libel to the tune of $1 million, then shut down production at NCR for several weeks because he said that he couldn't run his company and battle the malevolent newspaper publisher at the same time. Cox actually had few supporters among Dayton leaders for the stand he was taking, but as the date of the libel trial drew near, Patterson apparently had second thoughts. He suddenly disappeared from Dayton, turned up in Europe, and dropped his lawsuit against Cox. For the next years he largely managed NCR from offices he maintained in New York City. Talk of moving the factory out of Dayton was heard no more. And in later years Patterson even endorsed Cox in his quest for political office. Such was the nature of this gifted, but unpredictable, man.