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Monday, 14 June 2010

Death of the ATM Inventor


Dear Visitor,

My apologies for not updating this blog recently. On May 15th, 2010, John Shepherd-Barron, widely credited to be the inventor of the ATM machine, passed away at the age of 84. The automated teller machine, or the ATM, as it is usually known, is an example of an invention that has become part of our everyday lives. Many of us would know what an ATM machine is. Here is a definition from Wikipedia:

An automated teller machine (ATM) or automatic banking machine (ABM) is a computerised telecommunications device that provides the clients of a financial institution with access to financial transactions in a public space without the need for a cashier, human clerk or bank teller. On most modern ATMs, the customer is identified by inserting a plastic ATM card with a magnetic stripe or a plastic smart card with a chip, that contains a unique card number and some security information such as an expiration date or CVVC (CVV). Authentication is provided by the customer entering a personal identification number (PIN).
(Source: Wikipedia, entry on Automated teller machine)

The Telegraph (a UK-based newspaper) on 20th May 2010 had paid tribute to John Shepherd-Barron in its obituaries section. How did the inventor come up with the idea of a cash dispensing machine? It was, according to the article published by the Telegraph, the inspired response to an inconvenience that he had experienced.

Shepherd-Barron once explained that he came up with the idea of cash dispensers in 1965 while lying in his bath after finding his bank closed. It was then his habit to withdraw money on a Saturday, but on this particular weekend he had arrived one minute late and found the bank doors locked against him.

...

Shepherd-Barron hit upon the notion of an automated cash machine by thinking of the way chocolate dispensers worked. "It struck me there must be a way I could get my own money, anywhere in the world or the UK," he said in a BBC Radio interview in 2007. "I hit upon the idea of a chocolate bar dispenser, but replacing chocolate with cash."

With plastic bank cards bearing magnetic strips still to be invented, Shepherd-Barron's early machines used special cheques that were chemically coded by being impregnated with carbon-14, a mildly radioactive substance. Customers placed the cheque in a drawer, the machine detected the material and matched the cheque against a PIN before paying out a maximum of £10 a time. "But that was regarded then as quite enough for a wild weekend," he noted.
(Source: The Telegraph, 20th May 2010. John Shepherd-Barron.)

The most striking part, for me, is that he hit upon his idea while he was in his bath tub. Archimedes, the famous Greek mathematician, inventor, astronomer and philosopher, also had his "Eureka!" moment when he stepped into a bath tub. (Archimedes noticed that his body mass displaced an equal amount of water.) Granted, Archimedes also came up with many inventions in his lifetime, but that is topic for another discussion.

From the article by the Telegraph, it is clear that the cash dispenser machine invented by Mr Shepherd-Barron was different from the present day incarnation which uses plastic cards with magnetic strips. Instead, it used chemically coded cheques and the added security device of a 4-digit PIN number.

Mr Shepherd-Barron did not profit from his invention even though it became one of the mainstays of the banking industry. Quite simply, he had failed to patent the invention! It was however, due to bad advice from his legal team which told him that to obtain a patent, the inventor has to give full disclosure, which would allow the machine to be exploited by criminals. (Ref: ATM Marketplace, March 18th 2003. The ATM from invention to innovation)

In 2004, Mr Shepherd-Barron was honoured and awarded the OBE.

For more reading about the automated teller machine, you may visit the following links:

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