It was fifty years ago today that Sgt Pepper first used a cash machine. 1967 is proving to be quite the year as we have yet another fiftieth anniversary and this time it’s the cash machine, officially known as the ATM though often referred to as `the hole in the wall`. Fifty years yesterday, on 27 June 1967 in North London’s Enfield branch of Barclay’s Bank, Reg Varney (looking like he was on the way to the golf course) became the first person ever to properly use an ATM. Did he withdraw his own money? Why was he wearing a cap? Who even was Reg Varney? More pertinently who actually invented the thing?
|"Is there really a tiny bloke in there luv?" "Yes, Reg, there really is"|
The Automatic Teller Machine to give it the proper name was invented by… well that depends really. Officially John Sheppard Barron was recognised for many years as its creator however it has more recently come to light that James Goodfellow might actually have invented it. In the mid Sixties he was a development engineer for a Glasgow company called Kelvin Hughes and was working on a way to enable bank customers to access cash when branches were closed. The solution was a machine from which they could obtain cash with a unique number that would `unlock` a person’s account as well as a plastic token with holes in it. He patented this idea which describes a card reader with buttons set on the outside wall of a bank. The patent states: “When the customer wishes to withdraw a pack of bank notes from the system he simply inserts his punched card in the card reader of the system and operates a set of 10 push buttons in accordance with his personal identification number.”
|James Goodfellow: "Here I am with MY cash machine. I invented it not Mr Shopping Bag!"|
Meanwhile John Sheppard Barron was working on something similar at De La Rue, the company that made bank notes. His machine used a substance known as carbon-14 which was on cheques and which would match the cheque against a personal number. The substance was described as “mildly” radioactive. Nonetheless it was his machine that went public first leading him to be declared the inventor though Goodfellow’s patent was registered about six weeks earlier.
It wasn’t until 2005 when Sheppard- Barron was awarded an OBE for being the creator of the cash machine that Goodfellow went public about all of this. The following year he did receive an OBE albeit for creating the personal identification number. Sheppard Barron said rather tartly of his rival: “His invention reminds me of the hovercraft- an elegant failure”. Goodfellow later responded: “When people talk about the Wright brothers, they didn’t invent the concept of flying, everyone was trying to do it – but they did it and got the credit for inventing the aeroplane, so I think I should get the credit for inventing the cash dispenser.” The academic row rumbled on in words alone as the two were not young enough to settle it in the car park at closing time.
|John Sheppard Brown: "Here I am with MY cash machine. I invented it not Mr Badfellow!"|
History is coming around to Goodfellow’s side though; even the Home Office’s official Welcome to Britain document credits Goodfellow solely for inventing the ATM. Ironically for a machine that gives out money Goodfellow has not made any fortune from it. No wonder he is so eager to get the credit. The sting in this tale is that there is a third claimant to the invention. Armenian- American inventor Luther George Simjian registered patents for the idea in 1959, eight years earlier. However his version was trailed and didn’t work very well.
It’s a wonder nobody’s made a period film of this rivalry inevitably starring Kenneth Branagh. They’d have to spice up the story a bit though- perhaps each of them hires an assassin to despatch the other. And a film might perhaps invent early attempts with a man sitting in a box handing out cash through a slot which is how all children used to imagine the ATM worked! Perhaps even Reg Varney would get his hand stuck in that first ATM.
If you didn’t know Reg Varney was a comedy actor who became famous in the 1960s on several shows including The Rag Trade. Two years after his ATM debut he starred in his best known series On The Buses for which he actually took a bus driving test even though most scenes took place in the garage. After that he was in Down the Gate set in Billingsgate Fish Market. Nobody is sure if he was formally trained in how to deal with fish though he was probably just as rubbish a fishmonger as he had been bus driver as he seemed to spend the whole time standing around chatting. Much later in life after he’d retired from acting he even took to painting landscapes some of which were exhibited. So far as we know he actually did withdraw some of his own money form that first ATM.
|The original cash machine painted with gold for the anniversary. Little man: "I'm still in 'ere you know. What happened to that funny Mr Varnish?"|
Some people reckon that use of ATMs has peaked and with contactless payment they will become obsolete. However it looks more like they will evolve to become the remains of bank branches. Instead of a shop banks will have a number of cash machine like outlets for people to use on the move. `Bank in a box` they’re calling it because essentially it would be a branch without the shop or people in it. Maybe though they will be manned- by one person sat inside- just like the way we always imagined it was when we were young!