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They Could Have Been Billionaires: John Sheppard-Barron


The ATM has dished out billions of dollars, but not to its alleged inventor.

Not since the person who decided meals should be served on airplanes has someone been responsible for more bombed performances at Evening at the Improv.

The Automated Teller Machine -- or ATM, as the comics called it -- has become a ubiquitous presence in our everyday lives. Roughly 2 million cash machines exist worldwide ("But none when you actually need one, am I right") and are indispensable ("No pun intended") for those needing a crucial banking transaction outside of the bank's normal business hours ("You know, between 12:00 and 12:05").

But how did this miracle of modern convenience and infernal surcharges come about? The answer could add five minutes to the stand-up act.

John Shepherd-Barron, former currency and banking security director for De La Rue, was said to have devised the concept while sitting in the tub. Arriving at his bank just after the doors had been closed, Shepherd-Barron envisioned a device to dispense cash from a person's account during off-hours. The Scottish inventor told the BBC, "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."

Shepherd-Barron approached the chief general manager of Barclays (BCS) to pitch his idea. According to the Telegraph, the manager took an immediate liking to the concept and commissioned him to design six ATMs for a June 1967 debut. The first unit only held one-pound notes and could only dispense 10 bills at a time. However, the primitive machine did utilize personal identification numbers -- or PINs -- to verify the customer. Shepherd-Barron said he originally intended on six-digit codes but reduced it to four after his wife complained that "she could only remember four."

Another three minutes to the act.

So why did Shepherd-Barron, creator of the one of the best and most widely used inventions of the modern era, refuse to patent the idea and spent the remainder of his life an average Joe? Just a little radioactive substance required to make the ATM work.

Since the first ATM predated plastic bank cards, Shepherd-Barron's machine used checks chemically coded with carbon-14. The ATM detected the substance, cross-referenced it with the PIN, and dispensed the cash from the customer's account. Shepherd-Barron claimed he was hesitant to place a patent on the concept because the carbon-14 secret could have been exploited by forgers.

Instead, he was beaten to the punch. James Goodfellow -- another Scottish inventor -- also alleges he was the first person to invent the ATM, but Goodfellow is the one holding the patent for a cash-dispensing machine. Although Shepherd-Barron is largely credited for creating the ATM, Goodfellow takes it in stride. He told the Toronto Star, "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."

In place of a mansion and a fleet of yachts, Shepherd-Barron earned a lifetime achievement award from the ATM Industry Association and was appointed an Officer of the British Empire in 2004. He retired to northern Scotland and passed away in May of this year at the age of 84.

While he never cashed in and laughed all the way to the bank, Shepherd-Barron could take solace in the fact that his invention improved the lives of millions of people for over 40 years. If only he were alive today, he might be able to answer just one question:

"What's the deal with Braille on the drive-thru machines? Who's it for? Blind drivers? This guy knows what I'm talking about."
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