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Random Genius: The ATM

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Like a candy machine, only with money.

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There are 1.6 million cash machines worldwide. If you're like most Americans, you use one every day. But where did the magic money walls come from?

John Shepherd-Barron, a former executive with British printing firm De La Rue, is credited with dreaming up the Automatic Teller Machine in 1967.

In a 2004 op-ed on ATMMarketplace.com, Mike Lee, CEO of the ATM Industry Association, wrote that Shepherd-Barron "is a man whose name deserves to stand alongside that of Alexander Graham Bell. But the inventor of the cash dispenser is virtually unknown."

He says the inspiration for the ATM came to him while taking a bath.

"It struck me there must be a way I could get my own money, anywhere in the world or the UK," he told the BBC. "I hit upon the idea of a chocolate-bar dispenser, but replacing chocolate with cash."

Minyanville's Random Genius Over cocktails, Shepherd-Barron struck a deal with Barclays (BCS) to develop the machine. The first one was installed on June 27th, 1967, in Enfield, North London.

It dispensed a maximum of £10 at a time, and Reg Varney, from the British sitcom On the Buses, was the first to use it.

Since ATM cards had not yet been invented, checks impregnated with carbon-14, a mildly radioactive substance, were used. (As far as health risks associated with carbon 14, one would have to eat 136,000 of the checks for it to have any effect.)

The machine detected the carbon-14, then matched the check against a PIN number. Shepherd-Barron's wife, Caroline, played a pivotal role in standardizing PINs to 4 numbers.

"Over the kitchen table, she said she could only remember 4 figures, so because of her, 4 figures became the world standard," Shepherd-Barron said.

Today, there are more than 1.6 million cash machines worldwide, but Shepherd-Barron thinks cash's days are numbered: "Money costs money to transport. I am therefore predicting the demise of cash within 3 to 5 years."

He believes that mobile phones will be used to conduct transactions, instead.

Although credited as the father of the ATM, some quick research shows that Shepherd-Barron was actually beaten to the punch by Luther George Simjian, who, in 1939, patented the Bankomatic automatic teller machine.

Simjian registered 20 patents related to the device and persuaded The First National City Bank of New York (which is today a Payless Shoe Source) to give it a whirl.

After 6 months, the bank deemed the Bankomatic a failure.

"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," wrote Simjian.

Oh, how times have changed. Gamblers and prostitutes do indeed use ATMs today. So do researchers working at the McMurdo Station in Antarctica, tourists visiting the Forbidden City in Beijing, sailors on US Navy ships - as well as the pious.

Don't want to deal with church ushers face-to-face? That's what "Giving Kiosks" are for.

As Phil Martin of the National Association of Church Business Administration told The New York Times, "Whether we'll have an offering plate with a card reader one day, who knows? But we're certainly not far from that."

Holy s*!%.
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