You can find them around every corner of Singapore, and they have without a doubt added convenience to our lives on this little red dot on the world map. The ease of withdrawing money anytime we need it has become so deeply rooted in our daily routines that we often take this function for granted. Little do we know of the origin of the device that has enhanced the quality of life of citizens all over the globe. We pay tribute to the man who invented the ATM machine, John Shepherd-Barron, who passed away on 19 May 2010 at the age of 84.
Like many eureka moments of great inventions, the idea of the ATM machine was hatched in the most unlikely of places. The Scotsman was lying in a bathtub after being turned away from his bank as it was too late to withdraw money. There had to be a better way to get cash on demand other than physically going down to the banks. His inspiration for the ATM concept came from the chocolate vending machine ‒ a chocolate bar was dispatched in exchange for putting money into a slot. It was simple. Instead of chocolate, why not cash?
After pitching his idea to an executive at Britain’s Barclays Bank, the year 1967 saw the first ATM machine placed outside a Barclay’s branch in Enfield, north London. The first customers used special cheques imprinted with mildly radioactive material in the absence of the plastic cards we use today. The iconic four-digit security number used at the ATM machine was reduced from the original six digits as Shepherd-Barron’s wife said it was all she could remember. While the four-digit codes are most commonly used around the world today, using six-digit codes is the norm in some countries such as Singapore.
In Singapore, the first ATM, codenamed Chartercard, was installed by Chartered Bank in 1979. By the end of 2004, there were 1,609 ATMs across the island. Today, that number has grown to more than 1,900. In 2004, Singapore’s OCBC bank was the first bank in Asia to receive an award for ‘Best Practice ATM Deployment’ in the Financial Institution Category in the annual ATM Indus- try Association Awards. A year later in April, Singapore’s first and only shared ATM network, atm5, was established, combining the reach of five Qualifying Full Banks (a sixth bank, State Bank of India, was added in September 2009) and further enhancing the convenience of life for citizens.
Around the globe, there are 1.7 million ATM machines situated in every possible location ‒ from central urban districts to small convenience stores – servicing millions of people every day. The proliferation of these machines is a result of the late Mr Shepherd-Barron’s simple question on an ordinary night, and a creative spin on an existing concept. Despite his passing, his work will remain embedded in the lives of citizens all over the world, enhancing the efficiency and convenience of life for future generations.