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ATMs 50th Anniversary: Scottish Invention-The Gift That Goes On Giving.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017


The 50th anniversary of the installation of the first ATM is fast approaching. 27 June 2017 is that landmark date.

That first installation featured a machine created by a team headed by my fellow Scot, John Shepherd-Barron. Other teams, in Scotland and elsewhere, were working on similar machines but Shepherd-Barron reached the installation finishing line first. He will be recognised for this achievement for all time.

Another Scot, James Goodfellow, who saw the style of ATM he created installed for the first time later in 1967, also invented the Personal Identification Number (PIN). 

Of course, the ATM is only one in a long line of inventions brought to the world by my remarkably creative countrymen.

Long before that first ATM appeared at a branch of Barclays Bank, Scottish innovations had helped changed our lives for good and - mostly - for the better.

The list is jaw-droppingly impressive:

  • The television: John Logie Baird (1923)
  • The refrigerator: William Cullen (1748)
  • The first electric bread toaster: Alan MacMasters (1893)
  • The flush toilet: Alexander Cumming (1775)
  • The vacuum flask: Sir James Dewar (1892)
  • The first mechanically-propelled, two-wheeled bicycle: Kirkpatrick MacMillan (1839).
  • Penicillin, the first true antibiotic: Professor Alexander Fleming (1928).
  • The telephone: Alexander Graham Bell (1876).
  • Smooth, Hard Roads: John McAdam (1816).
  • Whisky: John Cor (1494).
  • Introduced soccer to Brazil: Thomas Donohoe (1894).

All of this from a country that, even today, only has a population of around 5 million people.

Scotland certainly punches massively above its weight in terms of the contribution Scots have made to improving the quality of life of the whole human race.

The creative Scots do not, of course, rest on their laurels. There is a thirst in Scotland that can't be satisfied by mere Whisky; Scots still have an unquenchable desire to invent!

And now, back to soon-to-be marvellous ATMs! As is the case with many inventions, it is difficult to sort out the facts from the folklore surrounding the genesis of the ATM.

For example, there is a lovely story that John Shepherd-Barron's enjoyment of a hot bath one evening was being ruined because he was concerned that the limited opening hours of his local bank branch might make it difficult for him to obtain cash the next day. What better place than a bath to have a Eureka moment? Yes, as he almost literally worked himself into a lather, John came up with the idea that would make a great splash. It would ultimately make a fundamental change to how billions of people access cash.

Back in 1967, this was still all a long way off. The machines John Shepherd-Barron imagined during his bath time were only intended to support the cash needs of those who could not get to their local bank branches during their rather limited opening hours.

In 1967, bank customers really only had a relationship with only one bank branch and one ATM. 

It wasn't until ATMs started to be networked in the 1970's that they became a truly convenient way of accessing cash. All you needed then was a plastic card plus a PIN number. So armed, you could go to any of your own banks ATMs to get the vital cash you needed to live your life every day. In those days, most people used only cash for retail purchases, so this new convenient access was a transformative innovation.

From that point on, the true potential of ATMs began to be realised. The 1980's and 90's saw both the growth of national networks and the internationalisation of the service.
A good example of these developments comes from the UK, the birthplace of the ATM. 
By the late 1990's, 99.9% of the UKs ATMs were connected through the LINK national network and the cards used for access to those ATMs, suitably adorned with an international card scheme logo, could be used at ATMs in around 200 countries. 
And, of course, innovation in the wonderful world of ATMs has gathered further pace.
Today, there are ATMs where customers can do much more than "cash & dash". In some countries, over 100 transactions are available to satisfy the needs of ATM users.
This trend is set to continue. The future is one where ATMs will be at the heart of meeting the financial services needs of almost everyone on the planet, helping make truly universal financial inclusion a reality.

Bring on that marvellous future!

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