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Tales In Tech History: The ATM

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelance and long standing contributor to TechWeek Europe

As world’s first ATM is painted gold to celebrate 50th anniversary, we take a look back at the arrival of cash dispensing devices

This week saw the 50th anniversary of the opening of the world’s first ATM (automatic teller machine or cash point) in north London.

The ATM at a Barclays bank branch in Enfield first opened to the world on 27 June 1967. The first person to withdraw cash from the machine was ‘On the Buses’ star Reg Varney.

To celebrate 50 years of service, the modern version of that ATM was painted gold and customers got to stand on a red carpet. A commemorative plaque was also installed, as the British celebrated their invention in a typical understated way.

ATM top

Tale Of Two Systems

But what was the origins of the humble ATM?

After all, it was a machine that transformed how people obtained and used cash, and was one of the technology developments that some argue have undermined the need for real world bank branches.

And it should be noted that a number of countries do claim credit for the arrival of the ATM, but a little digging shows that it was in the UK, that the first ATM was put to use.

But to muddle matters somewhat, it seems that the inventor of the cash machine has been a source of dispute for a number of years, if not decades in the UK.

This is because two Scottish men claimed the credit separately for inventing the device. These two men are James Goodfellow and John Shepherd-Barron (deceased).

What is not disputed is that the ATM machine mentioned above at Barclays in Enfield was the invention of John Shepherd-Barron, and for decades he won the bragging rights as the ATM inventor.

However this was not a typical ATM machine as we know it today.

Shepherd-Barron worked for banknote manufacturer De La Rue, which never patented its machine.

That De La Rue Automatic Cash System (or DACS machine) did not use a plastic card and PIN numbers to withdraw cash.

Instead, it used cheques that were impregnated with carbon 14, a mildly radioactive substance. Once that machine detected it, it then matched the cheque against a PIN (personal identification number).

The Real Inventor

A month after John Shepherd-Barron’s ATM first appeared, a rival ATM system (called the Chubb MD2) from James Goodfellow arrived – mostly at Natwest banks.

Now these were much more like the traditional ATMs we know today. Goodfellow’s ATMs used a plastic card and PIN which became the forerunner of the ATM systems we all use today.

Indeed, Goodfellow’s design had a significant impact on the banking sector, and future entrants into the ATM markets such as NCR Corporation and IBM all licenced Goodfellow’s PIN system.

This was because Goodfellow had patented his system in May 1966, more than a year before Shepherd-Barron’s first cash machine in Enfield was ceremonially opened in a blaze of publicity.

It should be noted that Goodfellow worked as development engineer for Glasgow firm Kelvin Hughes in the mid-1960s. He was involved in a project to design a machine that could dispense money to customers when banks were closed.

Remember, most banks closed at 3pm on week days (long before people left work), and banks were not commonly open on a weekend.

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