Secret Scotland

If it's secret, and in Scotland…

The cash dispenser – another Scottish invention

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I see from the news that the funeral of John Shepherd-Barron OBE took place recently.

Credited with inventing the cash machine, Mr Shepherd-Barron was born in Meghalaya (then Shillong), India, on June 23, 1925, and died on May 15, 2010, at Raigmore Hospital in Inverness, aged 84. He had been living in Portmahomack in Ross-shire.

The idea came to him during the 1960s, after he was unable to get access to his money after arriving too late to get into his bank. He later described how the idea of the machine came to him while he was in his bath, and had been inspired by a similar machine used to sell bars of chocolate. Barclays bought into the idea almost immediately, the then chief executive signed a contract with the inventor, and the world’s first ATM (automated teller machine) was installed in a branch of Barclays in Enfield, north London, in June 1967. First to use the machine and withdraw cash was Reg Varney, well-known for his role in the television comedy series On the Buses. The site is marked by a blue plaque, but it is reported that few visitors take any notice of it.

In order to withdraw cash (initially limited to a maximum of £10), the user had to complete and insert one of their cheques into the machine. As the plastic card and magnetic strip had not been invented then, the user’s PIN (personal identification number) was encoded on their cheques using ink tagged with radioactive carbon-14. The machine could read this, and compared it with the number input by the user. Carbon-14 is a well-known radioactive marker, and in this application harmless. The inventor calculated that someone would have had to eat 136,000 such cheques before any harm was likely from the ink. The health effect of eating the cheques alone does not seem to have been considered.

This was also when the four digit PIN was invented. Although Shepherd Barron could remember six digits (as per his Army number), his wife declared she could only remember four, so this set the length of the PIN, and became a worldwide standard.

The invention was never patented, and he described a conversation with Barclays’ lawyers where he was “advised that applying for a patent would have involved disclosing the coding system, which in turn would have enabled criminals to work the code out”.

Many years later, he was awarded the OBE for services to banking in the Queen’s New Year Honours List for 2005.

This leads us on to one of the more controversial aspect of the invention, which I believe was told some years ago, during a television documentary.

Another Scot, Paisley-born James Goodfellow OBE, was a development engineer working on ATMs at the time and holds a 1966 patent for the ATM, however his machine was tested one month later than Shepherd Barron’s. Goodfellow came up with the idea of an encrypted card to be used with a PIN number, and devised the mechanism of keying in a number code to cash machines in the 1960s.

When Shepherd-Barron was given his royal honour, Goodfellow was quoted as saying: “It is one thing for him to be awarded an OBE for services to the banking industry, but not for him to be portrayed as the inventor of the ATM. I have never bothered with this thing for 40 years, so it was a shock when it said he invented it. It’s not sour grapes. He invented a radioactive device to withdraw money. 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.”

Goodfellow was awarded the OBE in 2006.


2011 saw the cash dispenser redesigned to take account of various tricks and frauds committed against its users:

BBC News – Cash-machine fraud: foiling the tricksters

Russian copy – Needs some work


May 28, 2010 - Posted by | Civilian | , , , , ,

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