Obituary: John Shepherd-Barron

John Shepherd-Barron OBE, inventor. Born: 23 June, 1925, in Meghalaya (then Shillong), India. Died: 15 May, 2010, in Inverness, aged 84

IN the early 1960s, young Scottish inventor John Shepherd-Barrow was in the bath, thinking about how convenient it would be to be able to access his cash at any time of day.

Inspired by the tokens that lorry drivers were using to buy petrol at motorway service stations, he came up with the idea for automatic teller machines (ATM).

At the time Shepherd-Barrow, who was born in India to Scottish parents but moved back to Britain, and had already studied at Edinburgh and Cambridge universities, was working for the printing firm, De La Rue Instruments, and came up with the first usable cash machine.

Instead of accepting cards, the machines would take a type of cheque that was impregnated with a radioactive compound called carbon-14.

The user would insert the cheque into the machine and type in a six-digit number. Having discussed the plan with his wife, Caroline, he soon changed his mind about the number of digits to be used because she said four was as many as she would be able to remember.

When asked whether the compound was poisonous, he declared that you would have to eat quite a lot of the cheques to notice any effects.

The first machine to go into operation was at a branch of Barclays Bank in Enfield, north London. It was opened with a ceremonial flourish by Reg Varney, star of the sitcom On the Buses, in 1967, and the bank still boasts a small blue plaque to commemorate the event.

At first the machines would not dispense more than 10 at a time because, as Shepherd-Barron put it, "that was regarded then as quite enough for a wild weekend".

Naturally, the next few cash machines attracted a fair amount of vandalism, and when one in Zurich started playing up, it was found that the nearby tramlines were interrupting its inner workings.

Surprisingly, he never patented the invention. He later said that he had spoken to Barclays' lawyers about doing so, and was "advised that applying for a patent would have involved disclosing the coding system, which in turn would have enabled criminals to work the code out".

But while Shepherd-Barron was widely heralded with being the inventor of the ATM, it emerged that there was a rival for the title – who also happened to be a Scot.

When he was awarded the OBE for services to banking in the Queen's New Year Honours List in 2005, one Paisley-born James Goodfellow, who invented Personal Identification Numbers, was furious.

He was the development engineer on ATMs in 1965 and holds a 1966 patent for it. His machine was tested a month later than Shepherd-Barron's, however.

At the time of the latter's royal honour, Goodfellow was quoted as saying: "It is one thing for him to be awarded an OBE for services to the banking industry, but not for him to be portrayed as the inventor of the ATM.

"I have never bothered with this thing for 40 years, so it was a shock when it said he invented it.

"It's not sour grapes. He invented a radioactive device to withdraw money. I invented an automated system with an encrypted card and a pin number, and that's the one that is used around the world today."

Goodfellow was awarded the OBE not long after this.

Shephard-Barron, who recently predicted a completely cashless society within five years, was also known to have come up with the odd invention that didn't quite set the world on fire.

He came up with the idea for a device that transmits the sound of a killer whale in order to repel seals from salmon farms. Something went wrong, however, and it ended up attracting the hungry creatures.

John Shepherd-Barron died in Inverness this week at the age of 84.

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