John Adrian Shepherd-Barron: ATM inventor inspired while taking his bath

Shepherd-Barron wondered if chocolate could be dispensed automatically from a machine why should cash not be delivered in a similar vein.

Beta V.1.0 - Powered by automated translation

John Adrian Shepherd-Barron's "Eureka!" moment came, as it should, when he was lying in the bathtub, in 1965. Having failed to reach the bank in time to withdraw his money for the week, the future inventor of the ubiquitous ATM (Automatic Teller Machine) set to wondering as the steam rose that if chocolate could be dispensed automatically from a machine why should cash not be delivered in a similar vein.

Later that year, during a brief encounter with the chief general manager of Barclays Bank, he pitched his idea: "If you put your standard Barclays cheque through a slot in the side of the bank, it [the cash machine] will deliver standard amounts of money around the clock." By 1967, the concept was a reality and the first ATM was installed at the Barclays branch in the north London suburb of Enfield.

The cheques were impregnated with a mildly radioactive chemical - entirely harmless to customers, Shepherd-Barron asserted - which encoded a personal identification number (PIN) that the user had to key in. His wife, Caroline, wisely cautioned her husband against making the PIN number six digits on the grounds that it would simply be too long to remember. Instead, the international limit was set at four. The first machines paid out only £10. At the time, Shepherd-Barron observed that was "quite enough for a wild weekend."

The machine was never patented due to security concerns, and thus rival machines entered the market immediately. Though the Americans were wary initially, they soon succumbed, while the Japanese, grateful for the inspiration, preferred to build their own, but paid Shepherd-Barron royalties over seven years for his idea. Born in Shillong (now Meghalaya) in the Indian province of Assam, Shepherd-Barron later attended Cambridge, where he studied history and economics. War service in India, Burma and the Middle East interrupted his degree. In 1950, he joined the De La Rue firm of stationers and banknote printers as a management trainee. One of his first ideas was to print vouchers resembling banknotes that offered discounts on washing powder. He also introduced to Europe the American system of using armoured trucks to transport money, and witnessed a spike in business in the wake of the Great Train Robbery of 1963.

Although Shepherd-Barron never made much money from his invention, his contribution to the banking sector was recognised with an OBE in 2004. In his retirement, spent in remotest Scotland, he continued to invent various devices, including a gadget that emitted the sound of a killer whale, supposedly to repel seals loitering around salmon farms. It was not successful. He is survived by his wife, Caroline, and three sons. Born June 23, 1925; died May 15, 2010. * The National

NEWSLETTERS
MORE FROM THE NATIONAL