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26 June 2007

ATM anniversary

[Dave Birch] I got invited on to BBC World to be interviewed (by Zainab Badawi) about ATMs, which was quite exciting really. I had been really busy all day and hadn't really been paying attention to the package that rolled before the interview, so it wasn't until I got home that I realised that the core of the story was not only the 40th anniversary of the ATM, but that John Shepherd-Baron, the former De La Rue executive credited with inventing that machine in 1967, "now believes that the ubiquitous ATM will be made redundant within the next three to five years by the demise of paper cash". Even an unreconstructed e-cash fanboy like me wouldn't go with a five year horizon, but I appreciate both the sentiment and his support for our strategic perspective that it will be mobile phones that are the final nail in cash's coffin, not mobile phones. Anyway, John says that the inspiration for the ATM came to him in the bath and a deal to develop the first such machine was sealed over a pink Gin with the then chief executive of Barclays.  In a BBC interview timed to coincide with the fourtieth anniversary this week of the installation of the first ever cash machine at a Barclays Bank branch in Enfield, North London, Shepherd-Baron explains the origins of the four-digit PIN and how the first machines actually worked (hint: they didn't use plastic cards). 

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One thing that struck me about this story -- apart from the fact that the machine used radioactive cheques rather than plastic cards -- is that I recall someone else getting an OBE for inventing the PIN last year. A James Goodfellow from Paisley in Renfrewshire who devised the mechanism of keying in a number code to cash machines in 1966 (ie, a year before the machine was invented by De La Rue in 1967). James himself says:

As a Development engineer with Smiths Industries Ltd, I was given the Project in 1965. Chubb Lock & Safe Co. were to provide the secure physical housing and the mechanical dispenser mechanism. My task was to design the means of allowing a genuine customer, and only a genuine customer, to actuate the dispenser mechanism. I reviewed many techniques, which may have achieved this aim. Areas researched included fingerprints, voice recognition, retinal patterns, card intrinsic value equal to value of money issued, magnetic strip, on line operation, imbedded resistive network on the card etc. These approaches all foundered on technical feasibility / cost / bulk or just price / performance criteria, so it was obvious that a new solution had to be found.

Eventually I designed a system which accepted a machine readable encrypted card, to which I added a numerical keypad into which an obscurely related Personal Identification Number had to be entered manually by the customer. This PIN was known only to the person to whom the card was issued.

This was, even more surprisingly, some years before the patent (this one I think) on ATMs was issued to Don Wetzel, Tom Barnes and George Chastain of Docutel, a company that developed automated baggage-handling equipment. According to this version of the history, the concept of the modern ATM first began in 1968, a working prototype came about in 1969 and Docutel was issued a patent in 1973.

I realise that no-one else in the world cares, but now I am now fascinated to determine the genesis of the modern ATM. Any -- and I mean any -- relevant details would be gratefully received.

These opinions are my own (I think) and presented solely in my capacity as an interested member of the general public [posted with ecto]

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