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Sunday, 18 September 2011

A couple years back, the Comic Treadmill set out to catalogue all the giant props in Batman comics. The most familiar is the giant penny in the bat-cave, of course, but the most interesting are the oversized working models of everyday machines: record players, film projectors, toasters, and more.

The earliest examples of this trope came from the world of gambling: a slot machine, pinball game, and roulette wheel. But eventually the types of machines became more mundane.

The earliest giant cash register appears in Batman, #62, from 1951, on the premises of a cash register company. Why the company has produced such a large machine is never stated, but it’s a working replica, not a trick. The script for that story, “The Secret Life of the Catwoman!” came from Bill Finger.

A working typewriter for giants appeared in Batman, #115, published in 1958. That story was also by Finger. In fact, he was known for introducing oversized props into his Batman tales, as well as helpfully supplying the illustrators with visual references.

Attempts to make Batman stories more serious in the early and then the late 1960s removed the giant office appliances, at least from the present. There was a nostalgic revival in late 1977: one story showed the Caped Crusader fighting on a giant IBM Selectric with a rotating ball while another introduced a giant photocopier. Since then, Batman has rarely had to deal with such machines in his regular adventures.

But the giant typewriters and cash registers hang on in flashback stories, and as a symbol of “the way things used to be in Gotham City.” Dick Grayson occasionally remarks about the crazy platforms he used to fight on.

All that is grounding for the question behind this weekly Robin: What inspired Bill Finger to write stories around those giant working props? What made him think readers would believe that a cash register company would have a giant working replica of its product sitting around?

Of course, people built non-working replicas for various attention-getting campaigns. Here’s a photo of a giant cash register from 1923, at the University of Southern California—but that was just a set for a fundraiser, with “coeds” operating the numbers.

In Batman Unmasked, Will Brooker suggested that a giant cash-register-shaped float in a war bonds parade might have inspired Gotham’s architecture, citing a photograph in George Roeder’s The Censored War.

But we can go earlier than that, and right into Finger’s backyard—to the 1939 New York World’s Fair! (More about that exposition’s influence back here.)

As shown in postcards of all sorts, the National Cash Register company constructed a building with a giant cash register on the roof. Its display changed to tally the number if visitors at the fair, and it twirled to give everyone a good view.

NCR had pulled the same stunt at the 1933 World’s Fair in Chicago and the 1936-37 Expo in Dallas. Alas, the NCR machine’s buttons didn't work, and its drawer didn't shoot out to knock over bad guys or reveal giant currency. Still, it was enough to establish the idea.

Furthermore, the ’39 World’s Fair also included a 14-ton typewriter by Underwood that reportedly worked. The company had built a similar machine for the Panama-Pacific Exposition of 1915, later moving that device to Atlantic City. (See more at Agility Nut’s Big Stuff.) But Finger surely saw the ’39 version.

This impressive color image of the NCR building comes from from Bill Cotter, who also posited the Batman connection.

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