40 Years of the Hole in the Wall

The Mirror (London, England), March 24, 2007 | Go to article overview

40 Years of the Hole in the Wall


Byline: By KATE JACKSON

THESE days, we queue for cash machines without a second thought. But when actor Reg Varney became the first person in Britain to use one 40 years ago it attracted hundreds of amazed onlookers.

It was headline news when Varney, who went on to star in On The Buses, withdrew the princely sum of pounds 10 - in pounds 1 notes - from a Barclays branch in Enfield, North London in 1967.

In doing so, he helped start a revolution in how we manage our money - and, four decades on, Western Europe's now a 24-hour consumer society making hundreds of millions of cashpoint withdrawals every day.

Although Varney, who played cheeky bus driver Stan in the 70s comedy series, unveiled the first hole in the wall here, the idea was originally thought up by Turkish-born inventor Luther George Simjian as far back as 1939.

He took his prototype to the US firm now known as Citibank and was given a six-month trial.

In the end, though, bosses decided that the public wasn't ready to trust a machine and even Simjian later admitted that "the only people using them were a small number of prostitutes and gamblers who didn't want to deal with tellers".

The clunky cashpoint used by Varney was actually designed by Scotsman John Shepherd Barron, who had realised the need for people to access their money 24 hours a day.

In the 60s, militant trade unions pressured banks to close on Saturday mornings and, since they also shut at 3pm on weekdays, there wasn't much chance for people who worked normal hours to get at their funds.

Shepherd Barron, a boss of De La Rue Instruments, had started out printing currency, then developed an armoured trucking division. So it seemed the next logical step was to provide easy access for the customer.

"I remember being infuriated that I couldn't always get access to my money, especially over weekends," he said later. "I started thinking of a way of getting cash around the clock."

The other key development was the introduction of the Carbon-14 system. This was first used commercially by Shell garages, where tokens impregnated with Carbon-14 were used by big companies in exchange for fuel. The process meant they couldn't be faked.

Shepherd Barron wanted to use the same system on cheques, which could be bought in advance from the bank, then used in the machine in exchange for cash.

After the briefest of sales pitches, the boss of Barclays eagerly ordered a trial of six De La Rue Automatic Cash Systems, followed by 50 more. A year later, in 1967, the first was installed.

Around the same time, after being asked to find a way for customers to withdraw money securely, Scottish engineer Jim Goodfellow came up with the idea of a Personal Identification Number.

Goodfellow, now 69, went through several ideas, from finger-printing to voice recognition and even retinal scanning, but all were found too costly or unreliable. He settled on an encrypted card to be used in a machine with a number keypad and a PIN known only to the user.

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