The 'hole-in-the-wall' celebrates 50 years of instant cash

Within easy reach and open all hours, Robert Hume pays tribute to the automated telling machine (ATM), or ‘hole-in-the-wall’, which celebrates its 50th birthday today.

The 'hole-in-the-wall' celebrates 50 years of instant cash

According to the ATM Industry Association, there are now 3m cash dispensing machines around the world — even drive-thru ATMs — with a further 280 being installed each day.

At the last count, Ireland had 3,265 machines. Cork city alone has 37.

“I hit upon the idea of a chocolate bar dispenser, but replacing chocolate with cash.”

The cash dispenser was the brainchild of John Shepherd-Barron (1925-2010), son of a Scottish engineer and Wimbledon ladies’ doubles champion.

While working for the banknote printers De La Rue, Shepherd-Barron made money-off vouchers on packets of Persil washing powder resemble pound notes.

The idea of the cash machine supposedly came to him one Saturday evening while he was having a warm bath to unwind. That morning he had made his usual trip to the bank with a cheque marked “cash” to withdraw money, but had arrived one minute late and the doors were firmly closed.

There simply had to be a way he could get his own money, wherever he was in the world, at any time of day or night, he thought.

Then the Eureka moment: “I hit upon the idea of a chocolate bar dispenser, but replacing chocolate with cash.”

Shepherd-Barron approached the general manager of Barclays Bank, who gave him 90 seconds over a glass of pink gin to pitch his idea. Impressed by what he heard, he commissioned him to build six machines.

They only paid out £10… but enough for “a pretty wild weekend”

The first of these machines was installed at Barclays in Enfield High St, London, on 27 June 1967. British comic actor Reg Varney, from ITV’s On the Buses, was the first customer.

Today’s plastic bankcards with metal strips were unknown then. Shepherd-Barron’s machine used special single-use cheques, impregnated with mildly radioactive Carbon 14, that customers placed in a drawer and which the machine retained. Once they keyed in their personal identification number (PIN), a second drawer would spring open with their money.

Although he had planned to introduce six-digit army-style PIN, his wife Caroline confessed she could only remember four digits - so four digits it became.

The machines only paid out £10, but that was enough in 1967 for “a pretty wild weekend”, according to Shepherd-Barron, who did not patent his invention and made no money from it.

Cash dispensers developed simultaneously in Japan, and in 1968 Sweden began testing a networked cash machine.

The ATM comes to Ireland

On February 13, 1980, the Bank of Ireland opened its first ATM (or Pass) machine at Stillorgan, Co Dublin. Other machines followed in Dun Laoghaire and Cornelscourt.

A spokesman praised the new devices for enabling people “to do basic functions for themselves, outside, and inside, banking hours... to make life a bit easier for the customer... and hopefully for the cashiers as well”.

What happens during all the self-service whirring and clicking is a mystery; and enquiring how much money today’s ATM holds gets bemused looks. Honestly, it’s not as if you were asking for the contact details of someone who would tow one away.

Rumour has it that a four-cassette machine will hold anything from €5,000 to €120,000. The average withdrawal is around €55, according to the Statistic Brain website, which claims customers use an ATM on average 7.4 times each month.

Remote access

Nagqu in Tibet, at 14,300 feet above sea level, is home to the world’s highest ATM. This Agricultural Bank of China cash machine is probably one of the least used ATMs anywhere — apart, perhaps, from that in the basement of Buckingham Palace, reserved for Britain’s royal family.

Wells Fargo introduced a pair of ATMs at McMurdo Station on the southern tip of Ross Island in Antarctica in the 1990s.

That’s just about as remote as it gets!

Maverick machines

The early machines operated slowly. After every transaction, a visor descended slowly and painfully over the keypad, and reopened equally hesitantly when the next customer inserted their card.

Some ATMs had limited hours — and still do in Japan.

In Zurich, Switzerland, an ATM began to malfunction when wires from two intersecting tramlines nearby sparked and interfered with its mechanism.

In 2013 at a Bank of Brazil branch in Curitiba, a fake cash machine was found to overlay a genuine one and was used to skim card information.

Alternative ATMS

Anyone for telephone banking?

Now that practically everyone owns a mobile phone, why not put almost obsolete public phone boxes to alternative use? In Peterborough and Chester, England, they house cash dispensers. Most people assume they are phone boxes, so there don’t tend to be queues!

Money talks… or strikes a chord.

A quirky pipe-organ ATM in Venice plays a unique tune for every cash withdrawal. When installed in 2011, it proved four times more popular than any other cash dispenser in Italy. Bank officials deny that the larger a customer’s bank balance, the longer and more interesting the melody played.

Short of money?

Outside a Sainsbury’s Local in Nottingham an ATM was inexplicably built a mere 30cm off the ground, so customers have to bend double or squat to use it.

Piggy banks.

Along with albino barking deer and white Bengal tigers, Dusit Zoo in Bangkok, Thailand, offers another rare breed: An ATM installed inside a giant pink elephant. Meanwhile, outside Vienna’s Wurstelprater amusement park, a Bankomat machine can be found inside an effigy of a less endangered species — a pig.

In need of ‘sausage and mash’?

East London has several Cockney rhyming slang ATMs. After you have entered your Huckleberry Finn (PIN), at one in Commercial St, Spitalfields, you’ll be asked if you want to charge your “dog and bone” (phone)? Or just want some “bangers and mash” (cash)?

Worried about your plummetting bank balance?

In a softly lit room draped with white curtains, in nearby Brick Lane, the Royal Philarmonic Orchestra serenades customers with violins, cellos and a harp, and attendants waft huge white feather fans to cool them. For those with financial worries — almost a third of us, says one survey — Atom Bank’s ATM, installed in November 2016, has to be the world’s “most relaxing” cash machine. Shame it only operated for one day!

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