Science, Tech & Environment

In memoriam: Inventor of the automatic cash machine


(Image by Darwin Bell (cc:by-nc))

This article was originally reported by PRI's The World. For more, listen to the audio above.

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The ATM was conceived shortly after John Shepherd-Barron showed up late to his bank. The bank had closed and Shepherd-Barron was unable to retrieve his money. Frustrated, he took a bath, and it was there where had an idea that changed the banking industry. He told the BBC:

It struck me there must be a way I could get my own money, anywhere in the world or the UK. I hit upon the idea of a chocolate bar dispenser, but replacing chocolate with cash.

He pitched the idea to Barclays, and the bank quickly installed six machines. BBC reports that the design originally called for checks coded with a mildly radioactive material, instead of credit cards. Responding to health concerns, Shepherd-Barron told BBC, "I later worked out you would have to eat 136,000 such cheques for it to have any effect on you."

At that point, the machines would dispense a maximum of £10 a time. "But," he said, "that was regarded then as quite enough for a wild weekend."

There are now more than 1.6 million cash machines around the world. Shepherd-Barron believed that his invention would soon lead to a future without physical money. In 2007, he forecasted, "Money costs money to transport. I am therefore predicting the demise of cash within three to five years."

His prediction may not have come true yet, but his influence over the world economy remains.

PRI's "The World" is a one-hour, weekday radio news magazine offering a mix of news, features, interviews, and music from around the globe. "The World" is a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH Boston. More "The World."