On June 27, 1967, Barclays Bank transformed the face of banking by introducing the world’s first Automated Teller Machine (ATM). Nestled in the quiet town of Enfield, London, this innovation – dubbed the De La Rue Automatic Cash System – was the brainchild of John Shepherd-Barron, an employee of the De La Rue company.
Let’s rewind, however, to 1939 when an early version of an ATM, known as the ‘Bankmatic machine,’ was patented. Luther Simjian, a Turkish inventor and New York City resident, spearheaded this concept. His ‘hole-in-the-wall’ machine was installed in a branch of City Bank of New York (now Citicorp) as a trial. But this attempt fell flat; the contraption attracted a limited audience, mainly gamblers, and prostitutes, resulting in its removal after just six months. Unfazed, Simjian continued to innovate in a variety of fields until his death in 1997.
Fast forward to the 1960s – the golden era for ATM innovation. Among notable developments, a British engineer at Smiths Industries conceived a machine in 1965 with a keypad to read encrypted numbers on cards, capable of dispensing cash and paper. The following year, Scottish inventor James Goodfellow patented a remarkably similar ATM. But it was Shepherd-Barron’s De La Rue Automatic Cash System, introduced in 1967, that made the most significant splash. The machine’s first transaction was conducted by British comedic actor Reg Varney, marking a pivotal moment in banking history.
So, how did Shepherd-Barron stumble upon such a revolutionary idea? In his professional life, he was deeply involved with the printing and transport of cash, even pioneering the use of armored vehicles for cash transit. Legend has it that after a frustrating experience of not being able to withdraw cash after banking hours, Shepherd-Barron had a eureka moment in his bathtub. He envisioned a machine offering 24/7 access to cash, with each withdrawal automatically deducted from the user’s account. Fuelled by this vision, he and his team at De La Rue set to work.
The first ATM was quite rudimentary compared to today’s machines. Instead of cards, it used single-use tokens infused with mildly radioactive Carbon-14 for validation. Customers could purchase these tokens, each allowing a £10 withdrawal. The machine was also the first to incorporate a Personal Identification Number (PIN) for user verification. Interestingly, the initial design proposed a six-digit PIN, but Shepherd-Barron’s wife suggested a more manageable four-digit code.
However, the machine’s capabilities were limited to cash dispensation. It couldn’t accept deposits or offer account balances, and it operated offline, leading to manual settlement of transactions later on. Moreover, instructions were printed directly on the machine, as digital screens were absent, and the system functioned mainly on mechanical operations rather than advanced electronics.
Despite these limitations, the introduction of the ATM marked a turning point in banking, freeing customers from the constraints of traditional banking hours. Since then, ATM technology has made significant strides, with modern machines offering a host of banking services, all wrapped up in user-friendly interfaces.
A machine once beloved by gamblers and despised by bankers transformed into the 24/7 cash-dispensing saviors we can’t live without today.