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.
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 process along.
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.
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 thing.
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?
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.
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 in.”
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.
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.