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Chances are, any numbered ticket you've ever touched-at the
movies, train station, or even in line at the bakery
counter-emerged from a machine invented by Reuben Harry Helsel of
Long Island City, Queens. A tall, good-looking man with piercing
hazel eyes, Helsel did not complete high school. Yet between 1917
and 1962 he patented and perfected 45 ticket-dispensing machines
for every imaginable use, from streetcars to racetracks.
Framed portrait of Reuben Harry Helsel (photo: Angela
Helsel's career as an inventor traced the arc of the American
Machine Age through the postwar period-just one small component of
the country's giant push towards mechanization, increased leisure
time and ease of travel. During this hopeful era when people
believed the future would be made better through industrialization,
small inventors like Helsel were instrumental in speeding the
Tickets were first used by the ancient Romans to create order
from chaos. Metal tokens-stamped with the head of the emperor on
one side and a number on the other-allowed the bearer entry to the
Coliseum. Centuries later, we still need tickets, for they always
prove something, whether micro or macro, positive or not. Speeding
tickets create a record of recklessness, lottery tickets represent
the dream of a rich future, claim checks confirm that you did in
fact hand over your suitcase to that harried baggage handler at the
departure gate. Tickets steer us through the universe. This tiny
printed stand-in guarantees your place, a spot for you alone, if
only for the length of a particular performance or journey. It's
impossible to quarrel about who sits where with this elegant bit of
proof in hand.
Patent drawing for a ticket issuing machine by Helsel in
Tickets have also enriched our language: ticket to ride,
vote the party ticket, that's the ticket! That last
approving phrase originated with the slips of paper used to control
and ration the distribution of charitable goods (e.g., soup, meat,
coal and bread) to the poor in early-19th-century America and
England. Soup tickets obviated the handing over of money that might
have been spent unwisely, ensuring that only the specified goods
went to its recipients. Shopkeepers redeemed the reusable tickets
to the issuing charity for cash. Over time “that's the ticket”
became synonymous with a job well done, or with doing the right
Helsel (who always signed his letters RHH) became the leading
inventor of ticket issuing machines. Many of the mechanisms he
designed were so well-conceived that they're still in circulation
decades later. As recently as 2003, a patent for a lottery ticket
dispenser (U.S. Patent 6,669,071) referenced two of his earlier
patents as precedents. A large part of Helsel's success as an
inventor was his ability to accurately evaluate the total picture
of what was needed from a machine, considering both practical
mechanical requirements and the human factors involved in its
operation that would affect performance. As the patents for
subsequent improvements to a single invention march ahead through
the years, you can almost hear Helsel thinking: What if the inking
mechanism were improved so the ink could transfer more cleanly to
the ticket and not end up all over the customer's hands? What sorts
of people work at traveling fairs and circuses, and what will make
the ticket machine foolproof for them? What if the internal knives
that sever the tickets were self-sharpening? What if the movie
tickets for a group of four-two adults, a child and a senior
citizen-could be dispensed in a single, swift transaction?
Details from a 1958 patent drawing for a ticket issuing machine
Oddly, in spite of his multiple patents relating to ticketing
devices for movie theaters, family members don't remember him ever
once going out to catch a movie. However, his first job as a
teenager was at a movie theater in Altoona, Pennsylvania; something
there must have sparked his lifelong interest in tickets and
ticketing machines. Automatic movie ticket machines came to be
considered so remarkable and progressive that a 1936 advertisement
for the New Criterion Theater on Broadway (“The World's Most Modern
Theater Built Wholly and Solely for Talking Pictures”) listed the
Gold Seal Ticket Registers by General Register Company among its
lengthy building credits.
1931 patent drawing for a check punching machine by Helsel.
By the 1930s, the dream of self-made fortune was no longer just
a myth, and many a tinkerer in his or her garage sought reward just
by thinking of and patenting the next invention. Consequently, the
U.S. Patent Office was swamped with applications, and Helsel put in
his share, receiving 15 patents between 1929 and 1939. Sadly,
wealth eluded him and he never realized a penny of profit from his
creations; as was typical for small inventors, his patents became
the intellectual property of his employer General Register.
All the leitmotifs of the Machine Age can be found within the
concise paragraphs of Helsel's patent texts: “Machines will be
designed for mass production and ease of manufacture, with
exchangeability of parts.” “A theater ticketing machine will have
keys that stay depressed flush with the countertop during the
transaction to facilitate the smooth exchange of money across the
counter.” “Coin-activated dispensers for transit tickets to be
operated by the general public will be simple, foolproof, and
impossible to jam.” “Portable ticketing devices for circuses and
county fairs will not need electricity to operate, and the
dispensing mechanism will require minimal manual force so the
operator won't grow tired during a busy Saturday at the gate.”
“Railway ticket issuing machines will create a sealed internal
carbon copy record of the day's take, coded by employee number, to
prevent fraud and theft by providing a backup record of money taken
New Yorkers can find a floor-model Takacheck at Katz's Deli
(left), along with the order tickets it pops out.
Though most of his inventions relate to internal mechanisms
largely invisible to the public, one iconic Helsel device remains
familiar to contemporary New Yorkers: the Takacheck Check Issuing
Machine. It came in two sizes: a waist-high model and a countertop
version, about the size of a bread box. The smaller version
features a bright red lever, which when pushed prompts a numbered
ticket to pop out of the slot and sounds a bell. The floor model
operates automatically: as soon as a user takes a ticket, a new one
juts into position to eagerly await the next customer.
Takacheck machine at Citarella in New York.
Takachecks are still manufactured today by the Globe Ticket
Company, and can be found in many a bustling establishment (look
for a row of five at Tekserve on West 23rd Street or the two
separate Takachecks at gourmet grocer Citarella on the Upper West
Side) where hordes clamor frequently for service at the same time.
It's odd how this simple device is still useful even in our
high-tech age. But as Shakespeare knew well, and Reuben Harry
Helsel confirmed, human nature is constant no matter what the era.
Without some impartial means of keeping order, things get ugly
fast. If everyone waiting for attention at the store (or vying for
a seat at the ball game) has a unique, numbered ticket, then
fairness prevails and tempers stay unruffled. Tickets endure
because people need them to sort out their complicated lives in the
clearest of ways.
NEW YORK—March 23, 2010. Last week film buffs and industry leaders gathered in Austin, Texas, to honor awardees at the South by Southwest (SXSW) Film Conference and Festival. And this year, they had something new to celebrate: award-winning movie posters and film title sequences.
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