Effect Measure

Birth of the Barclay Beast

Many years ago a strange organism appeared outside a branch of Barclays Bank north of London. The first member of the public to encounter it in the wild was an actor from a TV series. We know how old it is from documentary evidence, but if we didn’t we could still carbon date it. Carbon dating uses a weakly radioactive isotope of carbon, carbon-14. If we know the proportion of C-14 in the organism when it was born, we could use the known rate of decay of C-14 to determine the organism’s age.

The organism in question apparently had a strong survival advantage and has since proliferated to an unimagined degree. It has now colonized every continent and in some areas can be found almost everywhere, especially densely populated urban areas. It is usually known by an acronym, ATM, but its full name (non-Linneaen) is Automated Teller Machine. It has evolved considerably since its first appearance on earth and now carbon dating is no longer possible. Since ATM’s are made out of inanimate materials, you may wonder how it was ever possible. To explain that we have to go back to its birth, 40 years ago. The ATM’s father was inventor John Shepherd-Barron, now 82 years old. Like Archimedes, his eureka moment occurred in the bath:

“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.”

Barclays was convinced immediately. Over a pink gin, the then chief executive signed a hurried contract with Mr Shepherd-Barron, who at the time worked for the printing firm De La Rue.

Plastic cards had not been invented, so Mr Shepherd-Barron’s machine used cheques that were impregnated with carbon 14, a mildly radioactive substance.

The machine detected it, then matched the cheque against a PIN number. (BBC)

C-14 emits very weak beta particles, so Shepherd-Barron wasn’t concerned about the radiation exposure. It wasn’t the only thing that wasn’t very powerful. The machine only dispensed £10 at a time. Of course £10 went a bit further then. One consequence of the ATM that went beyond the cash availability is very much with us today: the PIN number.

Mr Shepherd-Barron came up with the idea when he realised that he could remember his six-figure army number. But he decided to check that with his wife, Caroline.

“Over the kitchen table, she said she could only remember four figures, so because of her, four figures became the world standard,” he laughs.

Of course now we have much longer PINs and my security codes are so complex — ten digits, upper case and lower case and at least one number and one special character — the only way I can remember them is to write them on the blackboard in my office.

That’s the price of good security, I guess.


  1. #1 gilmore
    June 26, 2007

    When they first came out they were free to use. . . They told us about how they saved $$$ from the reduced tellers needed.

    I didn’t take long till we were all hooked. . . THEN came the fees.

    Not much difference from the corner drug dealer.

  2. #2 marquer
    June 26, 2007

    The organism in question apparently had a strong survival advantage and has since proliferated to an unimagined degree. It has now colonized every continent and in some areas can be found almost everywhere, especially densely populated urban areas.

    And a mimetic parasite has evolved.

    In several cases, gangs of thieves have fitted false fronts over real ATMs. These contain a working keypad and display and card handling mechanism, but nothing else. When an unsuspecting customer attempts a transaction, the parasite machine inhales the card, accepts and logs the PIN number, and displays a message along the lines of “INSUFFICIENT FUNDS. CARD RETAINED.”

    A surprising number of customers aren’t willing to immediately get in touch with the bank or the police, perhaps due to an unwillingness to be embarrassed if they have in fact gone into overdraft.

    Of course, in the meantime, the thieves will be busily cleaning up with their newly collected cards and PINs.

  3. #3 M. Randolph Kruger
    June 26, 2007

    Now where is that old mattress…….?

  4. #4 Paul A
    June 27, 2007

    Where do you pay fees? Is that in the US? Over here there are only select privately-operated machines which charge money and most people avoid them like the plague, especially after they got a bad press for specifically targeting poorer areas without free machines. As far as I know every bank-operated ATM is free to the user, if they were to start charging people would instantly go to another provider.

    My one gripe about them is that I wish all the different operators would put their various options in the same place on the screen, a bit of standardisation can’t hurt. The amount of times I’ve tried to quickly withdraw a tenner and come away with 100 or more by mistake…

  5. #5 Tim B
    June 27, 2007

    In the US most banks don’t charge for ATM use if you use their ATM’s. If you use another banks ATM to withdrawal money you not only get charged by the other bank for using thier ATM but your bank charges you for not using one of thier ATMs. Of course if you are rich enough to have a very large balance in your account the bank won’t charge you extra. The rich keep getting richer.

  6. #6 Jun
    June 29, 2007

    Don’t forget about Luther George Simjian:

    In 1939 Simjian had the idea to build the Bankmatic Automated Teller Machine, his probably most famous invention. Despite the scepticism of the banks, he registered 20 patents for it and developed a number of features and principles that can still be found in today’s ATMs, including their name. He finally persuaded the City Bank of New York, today Citibank, to run a 6-month trial, which was however not continued — surprisingly not due to technical insufficiencies, but to lack of demand. “It seems the only people using the machines were a small number of prostitutes and gamblers who didn’t want to deal with tellers face to face,” Simjian wrote.


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