LONDON (Reuters Life!) - A Scotsman who came up with the idea for the world’s first automatic cash machine while sitting in the bath after he was locked out of his bank has died at the age of 84.
John Shepherd-Barron’s “eureka” moment was inspired by a machine dispensing chocolate bars and he later sold his concept to an executive at Britain’s Barclays Bank over a pink gin.
More than 40 years after the first cash machine, or ATM, opened at a bank in north London, customers now have access to 1.7 million worldwide.
“It struck me there must be a way I could get my own money, anywhere in the world,” he said in a BBC interview in 2007 to mark the ATM’s 40th anniversary. “I hit upon the idea of a chocolate bar dispenser, but replacing chocolate with cash.”
In the absence of plastic cards, the first customers withdrew money using special checks impregnated with a mildly radioactive material. The machines were designed to recognize the checks and dispense money once the customer had entered a personal identification number (PIN).
Shepherd-Barron’s wife suggested he used a four-digit security number because she said she would never be able to remember the originally planned six digits. The idea stuck.
Banks in the United States at first gave his invention a lukewarm reception, viewing it as a “wacky European idea that wouldn’t sell in America”, the inventor and businessman said.
But after the first orders came in, the public warmed to the machines and the idea snowballed. His machine hit the streets just before rivals’ designs from around the world.
Born in India to Scottish parents in 1925, Shepherd-Barron worked for the banknote printer De La Rue and was honored by Queen Elizabeth for services to banking in 2005. He died in Scotland on Saturday after a short illness.
“His invention has transformed the way that we get hold of our cash,” said a spokesman for Link, Britain’s cash machine network. “While cash machines were once a novelty, they have become part of daily life.”
Although Shepherd-Barron was credited with inventing the first practical ATM, he had a rival for the claim to have developed the type of machine widely used today.
Fellow Scot James Goodfellow, also honored by Queen Elizabeth for an alternative ATM design, said it was wrong to portray Shepherd-Barron as the cash machine’s inventor.
“It’s not sour grapes. He invented a radioactive device to withdraw money,” Goodfellow told a Scottish newspaper. “I invented an automated system with an encrypted card and a PIN number, and that’s the one that is used around the world today.”
Editing by Steve Addison